Whiff machine: Pomeranz transformed with more curves

Lefty's strikeout percentage of 30.4 percent is 7th in Majors

May 6th, 2016

As the Mets continue a series in San Diego on Friday night, we'll be seeing a quality young starting pitcher who was a first-round pick in the 2010 Draft, traded by his original team before he reached the bigs and now starring thanks in part to a strikeout percentage that ranks among the seven best in baseball.

Sure, that Noah Syndergaard guy is pretty good, too. But that all also applies to Drew Pomeranz, the man with the deadliest lefty curveball in baseball so far this season.

Just 27, Pomeranz has been around. Drafted by Cleveland in 2010 just behind Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and ahead of Matt Harvey, he was dealt to Colorado the next year in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, then on to Oakland for Brett Anderson after three seasons in Denver. Unable to consistently stick in the A's rotation, Pomeranz was shipped to San Diego last offseason in the Yonder Alonso deal.

Pomeranz had to beat out Robbie Erlin and Colin Rea for a rotation spot out of camp, and the results so far have been, well, impressive:

Strikeout percentage, 2016, minimum 20 innings (142 qualifiers)

  1. Syndergaard -- 34.4 percent

  2. Jose Fernandez -- 33.1 percent

  3. (tie) Vince Velasquez / Clayton Kershaw -- 32 percent

  4. Drew Smyly -- 31.5 percent

  5. David Price -- 30.6 percent

  6. Pomeranz -- 30.4 percent

    That's up from 23 percent with Oakland and in the high teens with Colorado. So how does a pitcher who averages just 91.6 mph on his fastball manage that? By using it less, mostly, despite the fact that it has above-average spin (2,490 rpm, where the average last year was 2,226 rpm), which is positively correlated to strikeouts.

    "I've always had a pretty good fastball and it kind of gets on them, surprises them a bit," Pomeranz said when asked about fastball spin during Spring Training. "I've just always had the kind of fastball that jumps, in my mind."

    He's right. Last year, Pomeranz got 10.5 inches of vertical movement on his fastball, ranking him not only in the top 30 of the 191 pitchers who had thrown at least 200, but nearly matching what Justin Verlander had -- and we know Verlander has elite fastball spin. But he also threw it nearly 64 percent of the time, partially in deference to the effect Coors Field had on breaking pitches, and used the curve only about 14 percent of the time.

    When Pomeranz arrived in San Diego, the Padres made a point of asking him to use the curveball more, to great effect. He's tied with Aaron Nola for the most swinging strikes on a curve, even more than Rich Hill (obviously, that he's thrown the second-most curveballs, behind Hill, helps here). Of the 22 lefties to throw at least 50 curveballs, the 8.1 inches of vertical drop Pomeranz gets is second only to Kershaw's 9.5; his whiffs-per-swing percentage of 48.8 percent is second only to Jon Niese's 50 percent.

    Pomeranz's strategy in disrupting the hitter's eye level is clear: curveballs down, fastballs high. Just look at how often Pomeranz elevates his fastball:

    Highest percentage of fastballs thrown 3 feet or higher, minimum 25 pitches

  7. Darren O'Day -- 76.9 percent

  8. Yimi Garcia -- 55.2 percent

  9. Chris Young -- 54.9 percent

  10. Pomeranz -- 54.2 percent

  11. Chris Archer -- 50.8 percent

    Gif: Drew Pomeranz Strikeout

    Those names aren't a coincidence either, since we know Garcia entered the season with baseball's highest spin and Young uses high-spin pitches thrown high to overcome unexceptional velocity. Just look at what happened to Josh Harrison on a pitch that came in at 2,515 rpm, well above the average -- where he expected the ball to be is about a mile under where it arrived:

    It's the same idea in reverse with curves, where only Fernandez has thrown more curves that came in at one foot off the ground or lower than Pomeranz, just ahead of Felix Hernandez.

    Gif: Pomeranz strikes out Pence and McCutchen

    All of which leads us to one final table, which puts Pomeranz in the company of some of baseball's most impressive pitchers. While much of what Pomeranz throws doesn't end up in the zone -- this somewhat explains his too-high walk rate -- when hitters go after it, they have an extremely difficult time making contact.

    Out-of-zone contact percentage, 2016, minimum 20 innings (142 qualifiers)

  12. Fernandez -- 40.2 percent

  13. Kershaw -- 44.6 percent

  14. Syndergaard -- 47.7 percent

  15. Pomeranz -- 48.7 percent

  16. Carlos Carrasco -- 48.9 percent

    Pomeranz has also added a cutter and change as well, just to give hitters more looks, and they've had varying levels of success in varying his repertoire. But it's really been about complementing that high-spin fastball up high with that curve down low, the one that Padres manager Andy Green calls "as good as a left-handed curveball there is in the game right now."

    Maybe it is, though certainly Kershaw would put up a good argument. Whether it's "the best" or not is really semantics, though. Six years and four organizations after being a highly regarded Draft pick, it sure seems as though Pomeranz has found a home in San Diego.