Ahhhh, the curveball. Uncle Charlie. The hook. The hammer. A good old yakker.
Whatever your nomenclature, a proper curveball is as effective as it is aesthetically pleasing. There’s nothing quite like a knee-buckling, plane-breaking curveball that gets even the best hitters to flail and miss it, whether it’s a power curve like that of Brewers ace Corbin Burnes or a nice, looping slow curve like Zack Greinke’s.
Considering the Baltimore Orioles newfound prowess in player development, it’s no surprise that the O’s pitching staff has a handful of nasty curves in its collective arsenal. Both the rotation and bullpen will feature several returnees from 2022, which poses the question: mirror mirror on the wall, which Orioles pitchers have the dopest curveballs of them all?
Kyle Bradish had a rocky start to 2022 but eventually showed why he was the most coveted piece of the Dylan Bundy trade, thanks in part to his hook. Bradish’s curveball is a blessed union of velocity and vertical movement. The pitch, at 83.2 MPH, had the second fastest average velocity of Orioles curveballs (behind only Mike Baumann’s) and was four miles per hour faster than the average curveball thrown in 2022. Four Orioles pitchers generated more vertical break on their curveballs than Bradish, granted all four throw theirs significantly slower than Bradish.
Kyle Bradish has one of the filthiest curveballs in the Baltimore Orioles stable of pitchers.
Bradish’s Uncle Charlie is superlative when compared to similar curveballs, which Baseball Savant defines as being thrown within 2 miles per hour and a release point within six or fewer inches. Compared to those contemporaries, Bradish generated 3.7 inches more vertical break. This nasty combination, exemplified here against a hapless Bobby Dalbec, accumulated a Run Value of -2 that ranked 86th among qualified curveballs and trailed just one Orioles pitcher. None other than…
Remember him? Bruce Zimmermann was the Orioles best pitcher in March and April, largely on the back of his curveball.
On the surface, Zimmermann’s hook is rather pedestrian. He doesn’t generate a ton of spin and as a result, the pitch doesn’t have a ton of movement – Zimmermann’s curveball has, on average, three inches less vertical break than pitches of similar velo and release point. Batters swung and missed on just 20.3% of Bruce Zimmermann’s curveballs, the 29th lowest mark in the league among pitchers who threw the pitch in at least 25 plate appearances. How then did he produce a Run Value of -3 (most of Orioles curveballs) with it?
Location and weak contact, baby. Batters hit just .182 with a .246 wOBA against Zimmermann’s curve, far and away the best results of his entire pitch arsenal (batters had a .380+ wOBA against all of his other pitches, not great Bob). Zimmermann’s command and ability to consistently locate the pitch up and in to righties and away to lefties counterbalanced the relative lack of movement, so much so that only one home run was hit against his curveball last season. Zimmermann has never been a strikeout pitcher, but the curve (along with his slider) was generally the pitch he called upon when absolutely needing a K, as evidenced here against Whit Merrifield. It remains to be seen if Bruce Zimmermann can stick as a major league pitcher thanks to an overall below-average repertoire, though mixing in a few extra curves could improve his chances.
Kremer’s curve is a bit more complicated. While visually stunning, batters actually had a fair amount of success against it in 2022. Of the 19 Orioles pitchers who threw a curveball last year, Kremer’s added Run Value was the second worst. Batters hit .291, slugged a staggering .527, and went deep twice against Kremer’s curveball. What exactly was so great about it? Two things that could help it become effective in the future: movement and its tendency to miss bats.
Hitters may have teed off on Kremer’s hook last year, but those two critical components could help see it become an effective pitch in the future. The pitch had 4 more inches of drop and just under two inches more horizontal movement than curveballs of similar build. Despite the poor results, Kremer’s curve missed bats more often than that of other Orioles pitchers – his 31.4 Whiff% with the pitch was the second highest swing and miss percentage behind only Nick Vespi’s offering.
With a little more command, Dean Kremer’s curveball could become lethal.
The alarm-ringing issue that spells doom for Kremer’s breaker is location. Far too often were his curveballs located dead red, middle-middle, as evidenced below in this zone heat map:
Source: Baseball Savant
No matter how much movement a pitch has, it’s simply impossible to be effective when the highest concentration of pitches a guy throws is located in an area that’s belt-high. If Kremer can gain a better feel of the pitch and shift that dark red area closer to the bottom edge of the strike zone, it will become an incredibly useful asset for him. His best can make even Yordan Alvarez look foolish.
There are sure to be new challengers to the curveball throne as the Orioles player development department, aka the Baltimore Filth Factory, continues to work with pitchers at all levels of the system. For now, this triumvirate of birds stands above the rest. Will Bruce Zimmermann ride his hook to one last shot at sticking as a major leaguer? Will Kyle Bradish use his to catapult higher up the O’s rotation? Can Dean Kremer keep his below hitters knees and turn his into a legitimate out pitch? We’ll find out soon enough.