Pitch Development and Design… Curveballs – Part 5

By Robbie Aviles (RHP Cleveland Indians, Pitching Lab Coach)
By Bahram Shirazi (BSEE, MBA, Co-Owner RPP)

This past spring, high school senior, 6’6” 200, LHP Matthew Liberatore was selected 16th overall in the MLB Draft by the Tamp Bay Rays.  According to Rapsodo, his curveball has a total spin rate of approximately 2800 rpm with a 99% spin efficiency.  Thrown in the low to mid-70’s mph, it has a vertical drop of 24 inches (2 feet).  His stats and data were posted on social media, along with commentary that noted his curveball has an additional 500 rpm’s vs. the MLB average.  Data is here folks and it’s influencing everything up and down the chain.  So, let’s get into it…

As we previously reviewed, unlike fastballs and change-ups, curveballs and sliders tend to break glove side.  Although both are generically referred to as breaking balls, they behave very differently from one another, with the slider possibly having the least movement of any pitch (relative to the gyro) and the curveball potentially the most.

Most pitchers have either a slider or a curveball – and some may even have both.  Having a breaking pitch is an essential component to a pitcher’s arsenal. It helps keep hitters off-balance and unable to commit to setting up exclusively for fastballs.  The slider and curveball are sometimes referred to interchangeably. But data shows it can be nothing further from reality.  Sliders generally have lateral spin and some degree of backspin or topspin with less overall movement.  While curveballs generally have mostly topspin and some amount of lateral spin with lots of movement.  There is also an area in between the two referred to as the Slurve.  But the slider and the curveball are nothing alike.  They break differently and have very different movement patterns.

The following is a summary of major league breaking balls and 4-seam fastballs’ average velos and spin rates.  The one thing that stands out is the decline in spin efficiency as we go from a fast ball to curveball and then a slider.  A curveballs spin efficiency generally sits right in between a fastball and a slider, generally in the 50%+ range.

a) Statcast: Baseball Savant and RPP estimate of spin and efficiency.
b) Baseball Prospectus: Pitching Backward: Spin That Curveball by Jeff Long (7-23-15)

Here is a brief summary of what we look for in curveballs:

What we like to see:

    • Spin efficiency at 50%+
    • Relatively consistent spin axis from pitch-to-pitch
    • Consistent spin efficiency
    • Velocity drop vs. 4-seam of about 10-15 mph
    • Greater VERTICAL drop than HORIZONTAL
    • Being able to throw for a strike and below or out the zone consistently
    • Movement to be glove-side
    • A swing and miss pitch

What we don’t like to see:

    • Spin efficiency lower than 50% (as it begins to approach a slider)
    • Velocity drop in excess of 16+ mph
    • Lack of full intent as it’s meant to be fastball arm speed
    • Somewhat inconsistent spin-axis from pitch-to-pitch
    • Somewhat inconsistent spin-efficiency from pitch-to-pitch (the more inconsistent the spin-axis and spin-efficiency, the more inconsistent the break. This in turn implies less overall command of the pitch)

A 12-6 curveball with a 06:00 spin axis has pure topspin.  This would be the opposite of a 4-seam fastball with a 12:00 spin axis which would have pure backspin. The net result of all that topspin on the curveball is Magnus Force that helps it drop quicker than expected by increasing the air pressure on the top-side of the ball.

Now let’s get into how you grip one, what it looks like in high speed at the point of release and what data analytics tells you about the pitch.  Here is a good example of a typical curveball grip:

(Curveball Grip)

The following is high speed video footage from the Point of Release for Dom Cancellieri’s curveball (Bergen Catholic RHP).  The total spin rate on this pitch is 100+ rpm higher than average MLB curveball.

(Dom Cancellieri Curveball)

The following is a summary of the Rapsodo data on the above pitch, with top view and side view further below:

    • Speed: 70 mph
    • Total Spin: 2431
    • True Spin: 1697
    • Spin Efficiency: 70%
    • Spin Axis: 06:38
    • Movement: -5.4 HB / -16.2 VB

The solid red lines in the image below depict the actual path of the ball.  The dotted lines represent the gyroball (no movement) path.

Since the objective is generally to create as much movement as possible, the higher the “true” spin rate the bigger the break. Depending on how the ball is released a curveball could drop straight down (12/6) or have some degree of lateral break as well. A curveball thrown with some lateral break will generally rotate some around the z-axis (below) and create more lateral movement and horizontal break.  This generally is a result of spin axes in the 07:00 – 08:00 range vs. 06:00 – 07:00 range.  Here is a good image on the three axes and directional movements of the ball.

The following chart provides a summary of several curveballs from our program this past winter with good examples of more and less horizontal break by various pitchers.  Spin axes range from 06:32 through 08:04.  As you can see, given somewhat similar spin efficiencies at the extremes, with different axes you can get substantially different directional movements on the curveball.

    • 08:04 Spin Axis -> 14.6 in HB / 7.9 in VB
    • 06:32 Spin Axis -> 5.6 in HB  / 20.5 in VB

Recapping Part 4 (sliders) and Part 5 here, it’s probably important to note that if you throw both pitches you’d want to make sure they are differentiated from one another by their overall movement pattern.

Part 3 on “Change-ups” click here.

Part 2 on “Fastballs” click here.

Part 1 on “Pitch Development and Design Basics” click here.