I’m in the midst of taking a look back at some of the best pitches of each pitch type in 2020, and in this edition, we’re taking a look at the top five curveballs of the year.
If you want to read more about how this series works, check out my list of the top five changeups of 2020 where I explain it.
Let’s get to it!
5. Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios’ season last year was an odd one. He saw the sixth-highest velocity gain on his fastball among all starters, seeing the pitch go from 93.1 MPH on average in 2019 to 94.5 MPH in 2020.
On top of that, his curveball was really solid, inducing lots of weak contact with a .204 wOBA and .060 ISO against, though it wasn’t quite the swing-and-miss pitch I’d hope it would be, with just a 30.2% chase rate and 14.3% SwStr rate. Both of those are solid numbers, but nothing that lights up the page.
But either way, a big velocity gain on his fastball and a solid curveball sounds like things would’ve been pretty good for Berrios, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out. Instead, Berrios posted a 4.00 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and 4.39 SIERA, thanks in large part to his fastball getting lit up with a .463 wOBA and .333 ISO against. So it doesn’t seem like that velocity jump helped much.
I do like that he changed his pitch mix around, dropping the use of his four seam from 32.2% in 2019 to 25.4% last year and making his curveball his primary pitch.
It really seems like the four seam fastball is the issue here too, because the next-highest wOBA against Berrios had in his repertoire last year was his sinker at .334, which makes me wonder what might happen if he replaced his four seamer for his sinker.
Either way, Berrios is still young (he’s just 26) and I have hope he can turn things around, because he’s got the tools to do it.
4. German Marquez
I love German Marquez, but man do I desperately want him to get out of Colorado. On his career, Marquez’s ERA in Coors Field is 5.10, while his ERA on the road is 3.51.
He’s a really solid pitcher who has been the victim of Coors Field for a while now (though he’s still had some success despite his home ballpark), and a lot of his success is thanks to this beautiful curveball.
Last year, the curveball was just as awesome as it’s always been, posting a 41.3% chase rate, 20.8% SwStr rate, a .122 wOBA against, and a .043 ISO against. It’s just a phenomenal pitch and has been for some time now.
Add into that a slider that’s also served as an excellent strikeout pitch the past couple years and you get a guy with a nice repertoire.
His main issue over the years has been his fastball (which some of that, I believe, you can chalk up to Coors), and last year was no different. His fastball posted a .414 wOBA and .200 ISO against, both really bad numbers. Fortunately for him, the rest of his repertoire helped make up for it, giving him a solid 3.75 ERA with a 3.28 FIP at the end of the season.
But seriously, if he’s ever out of Coors, I’m all over him.
3. Shane Bieber
Shane Bieber is amazing, we all know this, and last year he proved it yet again, snagging the AL Cy Young award with a 1.63 ERA, 2.07 FIP, and 41.1% strikeout rate.
A large part of Bieber’s success comes from this curveball, which was the fifth most-chased pitch in all of baseball last year with a 47.4% chase rate alongside a 24% SwStr rate, 34.8% CSW, 56.2% strikeout rate, and .135 wOBA against.
An incredible pitch no matter how you look at it, and it’s far from the only great pitch he’s got, because there’s also his slider, a pitch that posted a 40% chase rate, 27.8% SwStr rate, and 53.5% strikeout rate last year.
I’m starting to think Shane Bieber might be good at pitching.
I love seeing Framber Valdez here. Valdez had shown some flashes of excellence here and there in the majors, but last year he really looked good, posting a 3.57 ERA with a 2.85 FIP and 26.4% strikeout rate in 70.2 innings.
Our own Cole Bailey did a great deep dive into what Valdez did last year that made him so good, but the short version is, he toyed with his pitch mix and all but entirely ditched his four seam fastball in favor of working with a sinker/curveball combo.
Hitters certainly had no problem making contact with his sinker, as they had a .327 average against it, but it induced a lot of weak contact, with a .088 ISO against, not to mention an exceptionally high 61.3% groundball rate.
And then there’s this curveball, which was great, posting a 35.2% chase rate, 18% SwStr rate, .187 wOBA against, and .100 ISO against.
It’s good seeing that his two main pitches induce so much weak contact, so that even if hitters aren’t fooled by his curveball to swing and miss at it, they’re still not likely to take it far.
It remains to be seen how Valdez will hold up over a full season, but suffice to say, I’m really encouraged by what I saw last year.
When I think about the art of pitching, my mind often goes to big looping curveballs. They’re just so beautiful, the way they loop into the strike zone and plop right down where the pitcher wants them (sometimes).
Of those beautiful curveballs, Adam Wainwright’s has been one of the prettiest over his career, in my opinion. Wainwright might not be the lights-out pitcher he once was, but man can the guy still throw a pretty curveball, and it certainly was pretty last year.
In 2020, Wainwright’s curveball was better than it’s been in a really long time, with a 40.7% chase rate (its best since 2014), a 16.3% SwStr rate, a .214 wOBA against, and a .050 ISO against.
And for his part, Wainwright turned in one of his better seasons in recent memory, posting a 3.15 ERA (albeit with a 4.11 FIP), the lowest ERA he’s posted in a full season (and I use the term “full” very lightly here given it was 65.2 innings) since 2014.
There’s no way you can project that Wainwright, who will turn 40 this season, will turn in anything like he did this past year (though I’d love to see it), but it was fun to watch while it happened.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Design by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)