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Phil Hughes Tinkers With his Curveball

The Yankees' Phil Hughes enjoyed his best start of an injury-marred 2011 season on Sunday, allowing two runs and walks apiece in six innings pitched while striking out five in a win over the Toronto Blue Jays. Hughes, making his second start since serving a DL stint for shoulder inflammation, got six hitters to swing and miss at his fastball (thrown at an average of 91 MPH) after failing to register a whiff with the pitch in his last appearance. The 25-year-old righty made some changes to his mechanics and the grip on his curveball prior to his Sunday start. Here's Ben Shpigel of The New York Times:

Hughes last pitched July 6 against Cleveland, and the 10-day layoff allowed him to throw four bullpen sessions. He used that time to gain comfort with a subtle mechanical tweak — his hips now open more as he finishes his delivery — and a new curveball, one that he turned to out of necessity. Once an outstanding pitch, it had lost bite and depth. He noticed that hitters were tracking the ball out of his hand, and as a result he did not generate as much weak contact or as many as awkward swings as before.

So last week at the suggestion of the pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Hughes abandoned his knuckle grip in favor of a more conventional style, which produces a more acute break, added velocity — 75 to 80 miles per hour — and a spike in confidence.

Hughes' curveball averaged slightly more than 74 MPH prior to his Sunday start, breaking away from right-handed hitters 6.2 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin and dropping 5.1 inches. For comparison, his 2010 curve averaged about 76 MPH, broke away from righties 5.5 inches and dropped 8.6 inches. So, Hughes' breaker had lost some bite and depth. Did the change in curveball grip make a difference on Sunday?

The pitch was effective, as Hughes threw 17 of his 25 curveballs for a strike and batters went a collective 1-for-9 against the breaking ball. There were some differences in terms of velocity and break, though nothing huge: Hughes' curve averaged 75 MPH, breaking away from righty batters 4.5 inches and dropping 4.6 inches. The new grip on the pitch didn't seem to add much velocity or sharp break.

Pitch break frequency of Hughes' curveball on Sunday, July 17Pitch break frequency of Hughes' curveball, 2010

On average, the type of curveball that Hughes displayed last year (with sharp, downward break) tends to fare better than the type of curve that he showed against Toronto on Sunday. Since the beginning of last season, curveballs with the velocity and movement characteristics of Hughes' 2010 curve have a .217/.252/.360 opponent batting line and a 26 percent miss rate. But curves with the kind of velocity and movement that Hughes had on Sunday, with considerably less downward break, have a .258/.287/.408 opponent line and a 22 percent miss rate.

There are many other factors that can influence the effectiveness of a pitch (such as delivery, other pitches in a player's repertoire and sequencing), but hitters generally put better swings on the kind of curveball that Hughes is currently throwing. For Hughes to have long-term success with the pitch, he might want to re-discover the downward bite that his breaker showed last season.


Zito Throws a Curve

Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants made consecutive starts against the San Diego Padres.  In the first, he pitched brilliantly, walking none and striking out seven, allowing one run during seven innings of work.  In the second, Saturday night, Barry walked four and struck out three, giving up eight runs in 3 2/3 innings. Talking to the AP after the game, Zito blamed his curve ball:

"It was difficult for me to get the ball down tonight," Zito said. "For the most part, the curveball didn't have the finish down, and the change up, either."

Zito's curve baffled the Padres in the 7/7 game:

Barry Zito, curve ball, 7/7/2011. Location on the left, movement on the right.Zito threw the pitch for strikes, getting nice movement in and down on right-handed batters.  He threw 29 curves, representing 27% of his pitches that day. Of those,  65%  resulted in strikes, batters going 0 for 5 with two strikeouts when it was the deciding pitch.

The pitch missed on 7/16:

Barry Zito, curve ball, 7/16/2011. Location on the left, movement on the right.Barry could not get the pitch inside on right-handers.  He also left the pitch up.  You can see the difference in the movement, as much less lateral movement kept the pitch outside the strike zone, and a bit less vertical movement helped keep it high.  Zito threw his curve in this game 22.4% of the time, only 47% of them resulting in strikes.  The two San Diego batters put in play resulted in hits. although Barry did manage two strikeouts on the pitch.

Zito could not depend on the pitch, however, so he went to the fastball more.  Since Barry's fastball isn't that fast, and his control of that pitch wasn't that good, so Padres batters managed two hits and two walks off that pitch, chased Barry from the game early.


The dulling of Mariano's cutter

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we are finally seeing the aging of Mariano Rivera. The great Yankee closer earned his 23rd save on Saturday, but it took a lot of work. While he struck out two, he brought the tying run to the plate (twice) by giving up two hits. Most significantly, he threw 28 pitches. This is the seventh time in 37 (18.9%) appearances he's thrown 20+ pitches in part, because batters are now able to work Mariano more effectively.

2009 Mariano vs. 2011 Mariano

As broadcasters repeat ad nauseum, Rivera is (primarily) a one pitch pitcher; he throws the cutter.

Here is the Mariano cutter in the first-half of 2009

Look at the consistent placement of Mo's 483 cuttersThrough July 14 of 2009, Mariano faced 119 batters, walked one and struck out 38. Batters hit .178, slugged .280, and had a .465 OPS. He had a 31.9% strikeout rate.

Here is the Mariano cutter in the first-half of 2011

This season, his 406 cutters are drifting more toward the center of the plate and upward, two dangerous places

In the first half of 2011, Mariano faced 106 batters, walked three and struck out 25. Batters hit .214, slugged .252, and had a .488 OPS. He had a 23.6% strikeout rate.

Beyond the slight drift upward of the pitch and the slight drift upward of the stats, there is a slight drift upward in the swing rate (49.5% to 53%), and a slight decrease in the miss rate (17.2% to 15.3%). Beyond that, there is an increase in the play rate 33.5% to 36.3%

2009 Mariano vs. 2011 Mariano against lefties

The difference is even greater versus lefties, take a look.

Here is the Mariano cutter in the first-half of 2009 against lefties

In 2009, lefties hit .167You can see that Mariano primarily worked inside, but he still worked enough on the outside to throw batters off.

Here is the Mariano cutter in the first-half of 2011 against lefties

In 2011, lefties are hitting.224The difference isn't vastly significant, but enough so that you can see why lefties are having more success this season. The pitches that Mariano used to throw on the outside are now being thrown more frequently inside and high.

Mariano will undoubtedly get the 20 saves he now needs to be the all-time saves leader, but he is going to have to work harder and his decreasing save percentage rate (98%, 96%, 87% to 85% this season), will most likely continue.