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Curvacious: Prepare For the Phils to Wreak Breaking Ball Havoc

Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta feature some wicked curves, and the currently disabled Jerad Eickhoff is no slouch, either

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Philadelphia Phillies
Man, that’s a beautiful sight
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Did you feel that? That pulse, that ripple of excitement that surged through our screens and into our eyes as Jake Arrieta took the mound for the first time in Grapefruit League action as a member of the Phillies? It felt like the important moment it was meant to be, and though Arrieta could only go two innings today - allowing a few hits and a couple runs along the way - it still felt like a substantial step was taken toward having this team feel competitive again. Five straight years of expected losing really limbers you up for that kind of thing.

Arrieta starting his day with a three-pitch strikeout of JaCoby Jones was excellent, and hopefully a bit of foreshadowing, but I found my most thrilling sensation elicited by the 2-2 curveball that struck out Jeimer Candelario. It even inspired me to bust out my thesaurus for these first two paragraphs. Watch it and tell me it doesn’t do the same for you.

Um. Hello.

Pitch f/x data isn’t available for these games, but you don’t need it to know that that pitch is fine. Get that thing a display case at Tiffany.

How Major League hitters ever deal with a pitch that traverses from A-to-B like this...

...I just may never fully comprehend. Seriously, that thing starts level with Candelario’s neck, flying toward the outer half, and ends up nearly burrowing into the dirt behind Candelario’s batter’s box off the inner half, all while hauling ass at 81 MPH. Madness.

Now, every curve wasn’t that beautiful. Arrieta took his lumps as he tinkered with his pitches and command, trying to play catch-up with hitters who have been at this for three weeks already. That’s fine. That’s not the story here.

We’ve become acquainted and cozy with Aaron Nola’s curve, been pleasantly surprised by Jerad Eickhoff’s, and now Arrieta has added his bender to the fray. With these ridiculous breaking balls now released from three arms on the same rotation, do the Phillies have part of the curveball market cornered?


There are lots of great breaking balls in baseball today. From Clayton Kershaw to Craig Kimbrel to Corey Kluber, the league isn’t deprived of magnificently arcing spinoramas. But the Phillies now have two of the, ahem, preeminent breaking ballers in the league on their team.

From 2015-17, Nola and Arrieta have combined to throw 2,998 regular season curveballs, or about 20 percent of their total combined pitch count. Nola does a lot of the heavy lifting, as his 1,695-curve share is sixth-most overall and exceeds 30 percent of his total pitch selection.

Not to be outdone, Arrieta makes up for what he lacks in raw totals with exceptionally effective results. What’s more, there even seem to be some similarities in the profiles of the pitches themselves.

5,000+ pitches thrown
BaseballSavant

Well, look who else decided to join the party! Yes, blending atop Nola’s name is indeed Jerad Eickhoff. Arrieta gets about 200 extra RPM of spin on his curves - give or take - than Nola or Eickhoff, but all three get healthy whiff numbers via the pitch. The correlation between lower SLG allowed and whiff rate is, obviously, stronger than it is to spin rate, but there’s a fairly clear bucket forming in the upper right quadrant of that scatter, and all three Phils pitchers are part of that collection.

Beyond spin, though, the physical characteristics differ more significantly.

BaseballSavant

AARON NOLA’S OFF THE CHARTS, Y’ALL.

But that second scatter confirms what’s visually evident when watching these three pitchers: Eickhoff throws a 12-to-6, Nola throws a mega-slurve, and Arrieta throws a hybridized version with more vertical dip than Nola and more 11-to-5 than Eick.

Most importantly, no matter the physical form or shape of parabola, all three pitchers get great results with their curveballs. With a minimum of 5,000 pitches thrown and 100 ABs ending with a curveball, Eickhoff, Nola, and Arrieta rank 11th, 13th, and 16th in the league in SLG allowed, among 61 total pitchers considered. Their totals: .252, .263, and .269, respectively. Nola and Eickhoff also allowed the 2nd- and 6th-slowest average exit velocity with their curves; Arrieta placed 22nd there.

Now, with extra-dramatic curveballs comes an increased pressure on the other half of the battery to minimize the wild pitch and passed ball damage. This will be something to keep a close eye on, as Nola and Eickhoff have 112.2 innings of work between them with Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro combined (not surprising, of course, given how both were rookies in 2017, as Alfaro will be once again this season), and Arrieta...well, yeah, he hasn’t worked with any of the Phils’ catchers before.

If the pattern of the past few seasons holds - and if Eickhoff returns from his lat strain healthy - the Phillies stand to have a set of powerful curveballs in their rotation’s arsenal; a trio that might just stand up as one of the league’s very best.