The Phillies Are Curveballing Their Way Into the Future

A rebuild is the perfect time to experiment. The rebuilding club has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The rebuilding club can experiment with different players, giving as many a shot in the major leagues as possible to see what sticks, the endgame being to unearth some key pieces of the next winning team. This is one of the most commonly accepted principles of a rebuild — finding out what you’ve got. But just as a club can experiment with players during a rebuild, it can also experiment with ideas. Just as important as finding the pieces of its next winning team, an organization should also be looking to find the identity of its next winning team.

The rebuild of the Philadelphia Phillies is well underway. They cleared salary and replenished their farm system in a major way by trading longtime fan favorites Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon, as well as dominant reliever Ken Giles. The Hamels and Giles moves in particular appear to have netted the club substantial hauls based on early returns. Baseball America ranked their farm system among the league’s top 10, after having not cracked the top 20 in four years. The only guaranteed money on the books beginning in 2018 and beyond is a $2 million buyout for Matt Harrison. They cleaned house from the front office all the way down to the coaching staff. The youth movement has made its way to Citizens Bank Park. The future is bright in Philadelphia. Surprisingly so, given the state of the organization no more than a year ago.

It’s very possible we’re already seeing some of the key pieces of the next good Phillies team. If all goes according to plan, Maikel Franco will be one of them. Odubel Herrera could one day be a winner in Philadelphia. And then there’s the rotation, a 3:2 mix of unproven youngsters and stopgap veterans who have struck out more batters than any rotation in baseball this season. Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton may not be the future for Philadelphia, but Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff sure look to be.

And so not only do the Phillies seemingly have 60% of their next contending rotation in place just 14 games into their first full-on rebuild season, but they’ve already got their identity, too. Their pitching philosophy, if you will. The Pirates have their own inside sinker. The Mets have their own slider. These Phillies? They have their own curveball.

Team Curveball Usage and Characteristics
Team Usage Velo H. Mov V. Mov Spin
Phillies 27.4% 77.9 7.2 -8.0 2611
Athletics 20.5% 76.5 -0.6 -6.8 2510
Mariners 19.9% 78.3 5.0 -6.5 2345
Marlins 19.4% 81.2 6.5 -0.5 2470
Brewers 16.7% 78.0 6.1 -7.9 2458
Dodgers 15.6% 77.4 2.9 -8.3 2309
Astros 15.2% 74.7 8.6 -8.5 2487
Royals 15.0% 80.6 4.5 -5.9 2677
Padres 14.9% 79.0 1.4 -9.3 2281
Cardinals 14.7% 78.0 6.9 -7.1 2429
Twins 12.8% 78.3 3.9 -4.1 2506
Indians 12.0% 81.9 8.6 -3.4 2594
Rangers 11.2% 79.2 1.3 -4.3 2319
Red Sox 11.0% 78.6 7.2 -5.5 2512
Cubs 10.6% 79.7 2.3 -5.1 2462
Tigers 10.2% 79.1 5.2 -4.1 2436
Mets 9.7% 79.5 1.6 -2.4 2351
Blue Jays 9.6% 79.7 5.7 -6.2 2550
White Sox 9.6% 76.9 -0.7 -3.2 2182
Nationals 9.2% 78.5 2.8 -5.9 2633
Orioles 8.1% 77.2 4.6 -4.1 2235
Rays 7.7% 78.6 7.3 -6.0 2472
Rockies 6.8% 75.6 4.0 -5.2 2436
Braves 6.4% 76.7 6.1 -3.6 2396
Pirates 6.4% 77.8 2.7 -6.4 2179
Giants 5.8% 78.2 -0.5 -3.5 2424
Reds 5.2% 78.0 3.4 -3.7 2349
Angels 5.1% 75.1 5.4 -4.1 2332
Dbacks 4.7% 79.0 6.7 -6.4 2266
Yankees 3.4% 79.9 4.7 -5.7 2501
SOURCE: PITCHf/x (usage, velo, movement), Statcast (spin rate)

Nobody’s starters are throwing the curveball like the Phillies starters are throwing the curveball. More than a quarter of all pitches thrown by the Philadelphia rotation have been curveballs. The single-season high by a team in the PITCHf/x era is 24%, by the 2012 Pirates. After that, it’s just 19%, by the 2010 Cardinals. This Phillies team might have the most curveball-heavy rotation since we started tracking such things. Phillies starters have thrown 431 curveballs this season. No other team’s rotation has thrown more than 300.

But it’s not just that the Phillies are throwing a ton of curveballs, it’s how they’re throwing them. The average Phillies curveball breaks seven inches to the glove side, drops eight inches, and spins more than 2,600 revolutions per minute. Only three teams average more drop on their curves than Philadelphia. Only two teams average more spins on their curve than Philadelphia. Spin rate and vertical drop are the two keys to getting whiffs on a curve. The Phillies have those in spades. The Phillies aren’t throwing a ton of curves just because. The Phillies are throwing a ton of curves because they’ve mastered them.

If you want proof that this is an organizational philosophy and not random happenstance, look no further than their offseason acquisitions of Hellickson and Morton. Hellickson’s thrown a curveball 15% of the time during his career, and more in recent years. Morton’s thrown a curveball 20% of the time during his career, and more in recent years. When the Astros acquired Collin McHugh off the waiver wire in late 2013, it was later revealed they did so because of the elite spin rate on his curveball. When that revelation surfaced, Eno Sarris wrote a post over on RotoGraphs titled Finding the Next Collin McHugh with Spin Rates. The third and fourth names at the top of his list? Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton.

For a long time, the Phillies were something of a laughingstock among the sabermetric community for their dated methods of decision-making under former general manager Ruben Amaro. Those jokes have run their course. This new Phillies front office, led by Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, has righted the ship. This new Phillies front office is using spin rate to build its rotation of the future.

Let’s see the new pitch of the Phillies in action. We’ll be seeing a lot more in the future. Each pitch shown is representative of each pitcher’s average velocity and movement.

Aaron Nola

  • Usage: 33%
  • Velocity: 77.2 mph
  • Movement: 11.4 inches glove side, 6.1 inches drop
  • Spin rate: 2,499 revolutions per minute
  • Results (thru 4/18): 45% whiff rate, 50% ground ball rate

Nola’s curve is the most distinctive of the bunch, with his three-quarters arm slot creating a more slider-like shape, opposed to the rest of the group’s more traditional 12-6 movement. Nola’s added two inches of horizontal break on his curve relative to last year, and among all pitchers with at least 25 curveballs or sliders thrown, only Corey Kluber has generated more horizontal movement than Nola on his breaking ball.

Vincent Velasquez

  • Usage: 22%
  • Velocity: 79.8 mph
  • Movement: 5.4 inches glove side, 9.3 inches drop
  • Spin rate: 2,455 revolutions per minute
  • Results (thru 4/18): 33% whiff rate, 67% ground ball rate

As Jeff Sullivan pointed out last week, Velasquez has added nearly five inches of vertical drop on his curve from last season, giving it a legitimate 12-6 shape and turning into a real weapon. Velasquez’s vertical drop on his curve sits just outside the top 10.

Jerad Eickhoff

  • Usage: 31%
  • Velocity: 74.9 mph
  • Movement: 6.6 inches glove side, 9.5 inches drop
  • Spin rate: 2,625 revolutions per minute
  • Results (thru 4/18): 42% whiff rate, 38% ground ball rate

Much has been made of Eickhoff’s curveball, which is perhaps the primary driver behind his transformation from 15th-round draft pick and non-prospect to solid mid-rotation starter. And for good reason. The vertical drop ranks in the top 10. The horizontal break ranks in the top 20. The spin rate ranks in the top 20. This curve has it all.

Jeremy Hellickson

  • Usage: 22%
  • Velocity: 76.2 mph
  • Movement: 6.5 inches glove side, 9.7 inches drop
  • Spin rate: 2,959 revolutions per minute
  • Results (thru 4/18): 26% whiff rate, 57% ground ball rate

The second-highest spin curveball in baseball this year is the one pictured above. It spins nearly 3,000 times per minute, generating the sixth-most vertical drop of any curve in baseball. The only pitcher who gets more spin on his curveball than Hellickson is the one pictured below.

Charlie Morton

  • Usage: 24%
  • Velocity: 81.7 mph
  • Movement: 8.5 inches glove side, 6.3 inches drop
  • Spin rate: 2,979 revolutions per minute
  • Results (thru 4/18): 36% whiff rate, 89% ground ball rate

The No. 1 spin-rate curve in baseball.

Although Hellickson and Morton are likely one-year rentals, players with no real future in the Phillies organization, their acquisitions suddenly make plenty of sense. They’re here to be two more data points in the Phillies’ grand curveball experiment. They’re here, presumably, to help foster the development of Nola, Velasquez, and Eickhoff, and their respective curves. Morton’s curve looks a lot like Nola’s. Hellickson’s looks a lot like Velasquez and Eickhoff.

These Phillies have a plan. These Phillies have a future. These Phillies have their very own curveball.

We hoped you liked reading The Phillies Are Curveballing Their Way Into the Future by August Fagerstrom!

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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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negativecreep
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negativecreep

Does it make sense to wonder if guys like Nola and Eickhoff can keep up this kind of success with a curveball without overpowering fastballs?