May 25, 2017

UNCLE CHARLIE:

Forget velocity, the curveball's resurgence is changing modern pitching : Modern pitching is defined by velocity, right? Not so fast. An ancient, mysterious pitch--the curveball--is an increasingly lethal weapon in the pitcher vs. hitter battle. (Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated)

No pitch has ended more aspiring careers than the curve. As former Kentucky congressman Ben Chandler once said on behalf of the great diaspora who know the feeling too well, "I was planning to be a baseball player until I ran into something called a curveball."

No pitch causes major league hitters to freeze more often. No pitch has inspired more legends, myths, fear, grips, nicknames, and ooohs and aaahs. It is a wonder of physics, geometry and art, a beautiful, looping arc through space made possible by the interplay between gravity and the Magnus force--a result of the flow of air around the spinning sphere--that often leaves us, and the hitter, paralyzed in wonderment.

This season marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the first curveball (and its first controversy). So it's fitting that McCullers and the red-hot Houston Astros are at the forefront of a revolution in pitching. Spin is in. Thanks partly to technology and the ubiquity of high velocity, the curveball is enjoying a very happy 150th birthday.


The 30: Nationals lead latest NL power rankings, but some unlikely teams enter the top 10
The Astros soared to the best start in franchise history (29-15) by throwing 14.1% curveballs, a regimen exceeded only by the White Sox (16.6) and the Red Sox (14.6) and Indians (14.2%). Houston ranks next to last in percentage of fastballs thrown (47.3). "I joke with the guys that the four-seam fastball is a dying pitch," McCullers says.

He's only half-joking. Even though velocity keeps increasing (the average fastball velocity, now at 92.7 mph, is up for a seventh straight year), the number of fastballs keeps declining. Since 2002, when Pitch F/X technology began capturing pitch data, the percentage of fastballs has declined from 64.4% to 55.4%. Houston is one of four clubs to turn conventional pitching wisdom on its ear by throwing fastballs with a minority of its pitches.

The Astros, who led the majors in curveball usage last year, have built a rotation around ace Dallas Keuchel, whose 79-mph slider acts like a short curveball, and curveball specialists McCullers, Charlie Morton, Mike Fiers and the injured Collin McHugh. Their success follows on the heels of a 2016 season in which major league pitchers threw about 9,000 more curveballs than in '15, and the pennant-winning Indians relied heavily on curves in their postseason run.


"It's easier these days to find guys with good fastballs, because there are a lot of guys who throw in the mid-90s and high 90s," says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow. "But finding a guy who can actually spin a ball, it's a skill teams are looking for more now because it's a differentiating factor. If you can find a guy that can throw hard and spin a ball, that usually bodes well."

Said one NL general manager, "Three teams have become big, big believers in the combination of high fastballs and curveballs: the Astros, Dodgers and Rays. Those teams are heavy into analytics. The game is changing away from the sinker/cutter/slider guys." [...]

The legend of the first curveball starts like this: In the summer of 1863 a 14-year-old boy named William Arthur Cummings experienced a eureka moment one day while tossing clamshells along a Brooklyn beach with some buddies. "All of a sudden it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way," Cummings later wrote.

Four years of practice later, Cummings, then pitching for an amateur Brooklyn team as a 5' 9", 120-pound righthander, broke out his new pitch in a game against Harvard University on Oct. 7, 1867. Harvard won 18-6, but Cummings rejoiced in the success of his curveball, later writing, "I could scarcely keep from dancing with pure joy."

By then Cummings had earned the nickname "Candy," a Civil War-era honorific that denoted the best at his craft. Cummings pitched 10 years before a sore arm sent him off to a career in painting and wallpapering.

Other pitchers of that era, including Fred Goldsmith, also claimed to have thrown curveballs, but Cummings defended his legend as its inventor so often and so well that in 1939, 15 years after dying, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame with a plaque that reads, "Invented curve as an amateur ace of Brooklyn Stars in 1867." His enshrinement came five weeks after Goldsmith went to his grave clutching an 1870 newspaper clipping that he insisted proved he was the original curveball artist.

From Candy to Sandy (Koufax) to the Dominican Dandy (Juan Marichal), the curveball gained mythic status, partly because it relied on folklore, not empirical evidence as with fastballs and their easily understood miles per hour.

Of course, the pitcher with the highest spin rate on his curve is Seth Lugo, so the pitch may not be determinative....

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/198720622/seth-lugo-sets-statcast-curveball-spin-record/

Posted by at May 25, 2017 5:11 AM

  

« REMEMBER THE QUAINT OLD DAYS WHEN "WHY DO THEY HATE?"...: | Main | THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT: »