Managers’ View: Is Increased Curveball Usage a Thing?

Curves were in vogue in 2016. A handful of hurlers — Rich Hill, Lance McCullers and Drew Pomeranz among them — were especially reliant on the pitch. In the postseason, the Cleveland Indians threw a boatload of benders against the Toronto Blue Jays, and even more against the Chicago Cubs.

Are we entering a curveball renaissance? Is good old Uncle Charlie making a comeback after years of playing second fiddle to sliders, splitters, and increasing velocity? Can we expect to see more Rich Hills, and more of the attack plan used by Cleveland in the World Series?

I posed that question — my wording varied, but the gist didn’t — to several managers at the Winter Meetings. Here is how they responded:


Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants: “We have baseball ops that I will put with anybody as far as the information we get. We have all this information, and [we] use it to a point where it makes sense. You don’t get away from your strength as a pitcher. It’s great if a hitter doesn’t hit a curveball, but if your guy doesn’t throw a curveball, you’ve got to make adjustments.

“That’s part of preparing for a game, to have a game plan and go into it in a smart way. The old adage is, ‘You have be strong to compete, smart to win.’ To me, we are. The best pitching coach in baseball [Dave Righetti] has these guys prepared, and [bullpen coach] Mark Gardner helps out. It’s all about having those arms prepared when they go out there.”

Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays: “The scouting report helps, but I think if you go back and look at some of those pitchers, maybe that day, or that month, that might have been their best pitch, so they pitched off the breaking ball.

“Toronto, we all know, is a very potent lineup, and with those guys you’ve got to give different looks. I give Cleveland credit in the postseason. It was interesting to watch how they evolved real quickly and adjusted to some things.

“The heavy breaking-ball usage, it kind of makes sense. You watch all year long, you watch those guys in Toronto’s offense, and they don’t miss fastballs, so it makes a little bit of sense.”

AJ Hinch, Houston Astros: “If you look at our stats, we use the breaking ball quite a bit, mostly because we get knocked for the velocity we don’t have in the rotation. No disrespect to Lance McCullers, if you’re [reading].

“The No. 1 goal is to use your weapons correctly, the best way you can that matches up against the opponent. There is a classic tug and pull between pitcher strength and hitter weakness. If that matches up and you have the guys to do it, I absolutely think… that screams for more breaking[ball usage. [But] if you’re going to ask somebody who doesn’t have a good breaking ball to just use breaking balls, you’re going to run into trouble.

“We have a lot of guys… McCullers will always keep us in the league-leader title of throwing curveballs. [Collin] McHugh same difference. Will Harris, same difference. So we believe in that pitch, mostly because our pitch quality is good, as well.

“One of the advantages we try to bring against our opponent is that we just want to use our pitches correctly, and use them against the right hitters, at the right time, in the right part of the strike zone, or just out of the strike zone, to induce soft contact. With that premise, what the actual number turns out to be at the end of the game can be what it is. What I’m saying is, I don’t want to go into a game needing 51% curveballs simply because that’s a trend. I want it to be matched up with the right hitters.”

Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates: “When you have guys that can throw curveballs, the opportunity to throw more is definitely there. We’ve had situations in the past six years where we’ve had teams challenge our hitters with more curveballs. I see from other organizations that it’s based on the construction of the starting rotation, and the bullpen — the pitchers you have.

“More information seems to be garnered every year on how to attack, how to counterpunch, and how to get people out. So, it’s something that we are aware of and something we’ve definitely had conversations about.

“[Curveball usage] has trended up in the past season. I think the game runs in cycles, though. I mean, the split -finger fastball was the romance pitch for a long time. That was the pitch everybody tried to develop and throw. I think you’re seeing the game cycle back around to the curveball. There were many years where the curveball disappeared — it was a slider, a split — and now you’re seeing good old-fashioned high-school curveballs being thrown again. And I think that’s the ingenious part of being a pitching coach. Some of these older pitching coaches had these good breaking balls, and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you give this a shot?’ and they work with grips all the time. Then somebody has success with it. The greatest form of flattery is imitation, and I expect to see more.”

Bob Melvin, Oakland Athletics: “As far as Rich Hill goes, not too many guys have that curveball, and, really, it can be different. He’ll change arm angles with it. He’ll change speeds with it. So it’s not just one pitch.

“Are we seeing a change in the way guys have pitched? I think it depends on the individual and I think it depends on the team. We’re talking about scouting reports for the teams you’re playing, and the Indians identified that, at least with the Cubs, their best chance was throwing a lot of breaking balls. Curveballs, in particular.

“That’s just something you figure out before the series, and you have to have guys that can throw curveballs. If you have a guy that throws sliders, and not curveballs, you’re not going to try to, for a series, make him throw something that he doesn’t throw.

“We try to teach our guys curveballs, too, because there’s a bigger gap between the fastball and the curveball than there is the fastball and the slider.”

Bryan Price, Cincinnati Reds: “I think a lot of that was based on their scouting reports and data, especially if you’re… I don’t know if you’re talking overall or primarily with the bullpen pieces, but either way, there is no wiggle room in the postseason. You go into a situation like that and you can’t just sometimes sacrifice a game to save your bullpen. You’ve got go out there and compete to win every game and that’s why we saw a much smaller group competing, and seeing pitches thrown at a higher rate.

“I think what we’re seeing is way more data. We’re finding certain pitches that we can isolate, certain sides of the plate that can be utilized more, certain pitches that aren’t used typically on one side of the plate. You’re seeing front-door slider, front-door cutter, front-door breaking ball, changeups inside, right on right, left on left. So what’s happening is, through the data we’re opening up a lot of different avenues to find out, defensive positioning, things of that nature. And now we’re going it see how the offense seems to respond. That’s the beauty of baseball, that back and forth.”

Scott Servais, Seattle Mariners:Felix [Hernandez] has one of the better [curveballs] in the game and some days he’ll use it more than others. Rich Hill, we saw him be very good at our place one night. I think he threw 90% curveballs. It’s something you can’t force — either a guy has a feel for it or they don’t. Some guys are more slider-type guys, which a lot of guys that we have are. We don’t have a ton of curveball guys. Iwakuma has a slow one that he will mix in. You can’t create pitches because that’s the scouting report of what the other team isn’t hitting. You have to go with what you have and what your strength is.

“Major leaguers are pretty smart; they can make adjustments if they know it’s coming. Unless it’s Rich Hill’s. Sometimes you know Rich Hill’s is coming and it’s still tough to hit. But you can’t force it.

“I think with all the analytical stuff, and the data we look at, and the group that we have upstairs to feed information down to myself and the coaching staff — they are quick to point out when guys are not using a pitch that could be a little more effective for them. We get that information all the time.

“I don’t have Corey Kluber. I don’t have Trevor Bauer. I have a different pitching staff. It’s great if you can do that, but our guys are wired a little bit differently and have different things to offer. So, it’s a great plan if you’ve got the weapons.”


Postscript: Per’s Mike Petriello, hitters saw more than 7,000 additional curveballs in 2016. Mike wrote about it here.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Dock Ellis
6 years ago

I love how the quotes are all ambiguous and they’re open to the situation rather than a hard and fast rule. Shows that the game is getting smarter and I love it.