Rich Hill Truly Curveballs Like No One Else

As if Rich Hill needs another way to be unique. How many other pitchers experience their career breakout at 35 and become one of the best in the league? How many other pitchers throw their curveball half the time? How many other pitchers who typically throw overhand freeze batters by occasionally dropping to sidearm? How many other pitchers speak fluently about their pitch axis, perceptual velocity, vertical and horizontal planes, and name drop DRA in interviews? Hell, how many other pitchers develop blisters on their fingers which require more than a month to heal? Rich Hill doesn’t need another thing to make him unique, and yet here we are.

By now, the greatness of Rich Hill’s curveball is well understood. Among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown since the beginning of last year, Hill is baseball’s ERA leader, and he’s become so by throwing exactly one curveball for every fastball. By usage, Hill curveballs like no one else. On a per-inning basis, only Jose Fernandez’s curve has been more valuable, according to our pitch-type linear weights. By dominance, Hill curveballs like nearly no one else. The spin rate ranks in the top five. Next to no one can spin it like Hill.

But what if there’s another way in which Hill’s curve stands out from the rest, and it’s potentially the most remarkable of all? Think about some of baseball’s nastiest curves — perhaps the ones thrown by guys like Fernandez, Corey Kluber, or Clayton Kershaw — and a play a mental .gif of a strikeout curve in your head. After the batter swung, did the pitch kick up some dirt? If it didn’t, I’d bet it was close. Typically speaking, pitchers want the curve low. The ones left up are the ones that get referred to as “hangers.” When a pitcher’s preparing to throw a two-strike curve, it’s commonplace to see the catchers tap his glove into the dirt, as if to say “put it here.” Except for when that catcher is catching Rich Hill:

Most Elevated Curveballs
Name CB Low_CB Low_CB%
Anthony Ranaudo 105 47 44.8%
Steven Wright 314 142 45.2%
Rich Hill 680 339 49.9%
Alfredo Simon 118 62 52.5%
Robbie Ross Jr. 154 83 53.9%
SOURCE: BaseballSavant
-Minimum 100 curveballs thrown in 2016
-Low_CB% defined as: any curveball below the middle of the strike zone (2.5 feet off the ground)

For reference, the league-average curve lands in the bottom half of the zone or beyond 74% of the time. Kershaw clocks in just a tick above that. Fernandez and Kluber each bury 83% of their curves. Just half of Hill’s curves are low. Or, to put it another way: half of Hill’s curves are elevated. Only Anthony Ranaudo and Steven Wright leave the curve up in the zone more often than Rich Hill; Ranaudo’s allowed a .600 slugging percentage against the pitch this year, and Wright is a knuckleballer who doesn’t play by the same rules. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about Hill the same way.

For fun, I prepared an image showing the average location of Hill’s curveball this year, and the average location of everyone else’s curveball:

HillLgCB

One of those pitches looks a lot more hittable than the other, and that’s because, usually, it is. The numbers play out like this: when the curve’s been kept down this year, batters have whiffed on 16% of pitches, 35% of swings, and slugged just .323. When the curve’s been left up, batters have whiffed on just 3% of pitches, 11% of swings, and slugged .411. Those are just numbers to confirm what we already know: the low curve is better than the high curve. Except for when it comes out of Rich Hill’s hand.

This is almost certainly a product of Hill’s fastball tendencies. Hill also generates extreme spin on his four-seam fastball, and he throws that pitch above the middle of the strike zone 70% of the time — well above the league average of 51%. When one thinks of a fastball setting up a curve, one likely thinks of a high heater coming before a curve that darts downward out of the zone. With Hill, most everything is high. The curveball just follows the fastball.

This all got me thinking about something Hill told The Providence Journal’s Tim Britton back in May:

But overall with me, looking at your pitch axis and trying the mirroring effect of having your curveball on the same axis as your fastball is really what leads to the ultimate deception. If you can mirror each other with your spin axis of your curveball and your fastball, you’re on to something — for me, personally.

“The ultimate deception.” That’s what Hill’s high curve appears to accomplish, by “mirroring” it off the fastball. Consider the following at-bat against Houston’s Carlos Correa in early May:

And then consider Correa’s facial expressions while walking back to the dugout:

Similar to how a pitcher who strives for his changeup to resemble a low fastball for as long as possible, Hill appears to attempt the same with his curve for high fastballs. One imagines that, after the elevated heater to begin the at-bat against Correa, the following two curveballs, out of the hand, looked like they were on their way to being fastballs way up and out of the zone, until they weren’t. It’s the ultimate deception. Most pitchers throw the curve in the area where it gets swings and misses. Hill, more than nearly any other pitcher, throws his curve in the area where it’s designed not to get a swing at all.

And for what it’s worth, Hill knows when to bury the hook. Batters have been more than twice as likely to swing at the low curve (59%) than the high one (29%), and so when Hill’s looking for a whiff, he drops it down. In two-strike counts, Hill’s curve has been spotted below the midpoint of the strike zone 56% of the time; in non-two-strike counts, just 46%:

HillCB2S

Hill often talks about the importance of “creativity” when it comes to pitching. This manifests itself in Hill’s tendency to drop down sidearm to give batters a different look and create a different shape with his breaking ball. It manifests itself in the occasional 61-mph curve. And it manifests itself in Hill’s willingness to leave curveballs up in the zone, an area where the league’s slugged .411 against the pitch, but just .250 against his. As if Rich Hill needed another way to be unique.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Love this article — baseball is WICKED hard,as they say — nice to see such a well laid out example of a player going about it in a counter-intuitive way.