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Hook & whiff: Indians' staff thriving on curves

MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- The Indians made headlines last postseason not only for defeating the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, but for the manner in which they did it. Cleveland's pitchers fired a surprisingly high volume of curveballs to toy with Toronto's lineup.

That trend has continued into this season for the Tribe, which headed into Thursday's action ranked second in the Major Leagues in curveball use. Across the Majors, pitching staffs as a whole are leaning more heavily on breaking balls, and the Indians are at the forefront of the movement.

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CLEVELAND -- The Indians made headlines last postseason not only for defeating the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, but for the manner in which they did it. Cleveland's pitchers fired a surprisingly high volume of curveballs to toy with Toronto's lineup.

That trend has continued into this season for the Tribe, which headed into Thursday's action ranked second in the Major Leagues in curveball use. Across the Majors, pitching staffs as a whole are leaning more heavily on breaking balls, and the Indians are at the forefront of the movement.

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"With the trend in baseball," Indians starter Josh Tomlin said, "with what the swings are starting to create, with the fly-ball revolution and all that kind of stuff that's doing on, the curveball is one of the better pitches in the game right now. I think there's been a natural kind of trend over the years.

"Our front office and scouting department and coaching staff does a great job of giving you information. In this day in age, information is power. That's all there is to it. Our curveballs are our best pitches to throw in certain situations. It translates into swing and miss or the OPS going down."

Over the past three seasons, curveball and slider usage combined in the Majors has increased to 27.2 percent this year, compared to 26 percent in 2016 and 24.3 percent in '15, per Statcast™. So far this season, the MLB average for curve rate is 10.8 percent. The Indians rank second in baseball with a 15.7 curveball percentage, and that rate has climbed to an MLB-leading 18.7 percent in June.

As a group, Cleveland's pitchers have featured curves and sliders 29 percent of the time this season, ranking 12th in the Majors and ninth in the AL. In June, though, that rate has jumped to 32.5 percent (fifth in the Majors and fourth in the AL). Among pitchers with at least 400 pitches in June, Trevor Bauer (third at 34.4 percent), Corey Kluber (sixth at 30.7 percent) and Tomlin (22nd at 22.3 percent) ranked in the top 25 in curveball use.

The Indians also had the AL's best staff ERA (3.81) in June, entering Thursday.

"That's what we did so good in the playoffs last year," pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "Everybody stuck with their two best pitches. Usually, those are going to work. If you're having to throw your third- and fourth-best pitch and trying to get outs with them, you're probably not giving yourself as good a chance as possible."

A lot has changed in the game since Callaway pitched more than a decade ago.

When Callaway was working his way to the big leagues, he said if he did not throw his fastball 65-70 percent of the time, then he would never stick in the Majors. There was also more fear that an abundance of breaking pitches would increase the risk of injuring a pitcher's arm. Callaway said analytics have helped change the way teams think about throwing strikes.

"The curveball is harder to throw in the zone for strikes," Callaway said. "I think what we were missing is that, when you throw breaking balls, you get the benefit of more chase out of the zone. So your strike percentage is actually higher, even though your zone percentage might be lower. So overall, I don't think we had the analytical numbers to be able to look at it and say, 'You know what? You're bouncing that breaking ball a ton, but your strike percentage is actually higher when you're doing it.'"

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

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