What Sets an Elite Breaking Ball Apart from the Rest of the Pack?

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What Sets an Elite Breaking Ball Apart from the Rest of the Pack?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Yu Darvish's slider >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Work on those breaking pitches, kids. Develop an elite one, and you'll go far.

But therein lies a question: What exactly separates an elite breaking ball from a run-of-the-mill, garden-variety breaking ball?

I asked the same question about changeups last week, thus giving myself an excuse to have fun with numbers and pictures. I'm going to do the same thing now with breaking balls, albeit with a slightly different plan of attack.

I'm sure you'll agree that it's not entirely fair to lump curveballs and sliders into one great, big discussion. Since it's not, I'm going to tackle them individually with a few telling examples.

Also, this discussion is going to differ from last week's discussion on changeups in that there's not going to be much talk about deception, velocity and sequencing. These things play a part in the making of a great breaking ball, but they pale in comparison to the main ingredient: the actual break. All breaking pitches move, but the best move a little differently.

Now then, who's up for a talk about Uncle Charlie?

 

On Curveballs: Mere Mortals vs. Wainwright and Kershaw

This shall otherwise be known as the "Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw Appreciation Hour."

According to Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs, Wainwright has saved more runs above average with his Uncle Charlie than anyone else over the last two seasons. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters are hitting his hook at a mere .168 clip in 2013.

Kershaw, meanwhile, has saved more runs above average with his curve than any other southpaw since the start of 2012. Brooks Baseball has the average against the Los Angeles Dodgers ace's hook at .068. When I punch that into my calculator, it makes a happy face.

It's appropriate that these two would have the best curveballs out of their respective breeds. If you've watched them, you'll know that their hooks really are different.

What makes Wainwright's curveball so special is its incredible two-plane break. Any right-hander can throw a classic 12-6 curveball, but Wainwright's is the rare right-handed curveball that's more like 11-5 or even 10-4.

By comparison, consider Jordan Zimmermann. He has a curveball that's nice and average. So average, in fact, that he's saved zero runs above average with it since the start of 2012 (see FanGraphs).

In terms of movement, there is a difference between Zimmermann's hook and Wainwright's hook. Brooks Baseball can help us out with the averages for 2013:

Pitcher Horizontal Movement (In.) Vertical Movement (In.)
 Zimmermann  7.25  -7.73
 Wainwright  8.62  -9.62

*Note: For horizontal movement, it's important to know that positive movement is away from right-handed batters. Negative is in on right-handed batters.

Zimmermann's curveball isn't exactly flat as far as curveballs go, but Wainwright's has a significant edge in both horizontal movement and vertical movement. It's the horizontal movement that really counts, though, and it fortunately shows up to the naked eye.

Observe the curveball that Zimmermann throws to Aaron Hicks here at about the 0:23 mark:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Now observe the curveball that Wainwright throws to Ike Davis at about the 0:23 mark:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

In case you didn't quite catch the difference between the two, here's a look at the break of Zimmermann's curveball in still form:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

And the break of Wainwright's curveball in still form:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

You can see just how different Wainwright's curveball is from your typical 12-to-6 curveball. One of those goes from up to down. Wainwright's goes from up to down and from right to left. In the case of the hook pictured above, his curveball had enough break to go from the letters to the knees and to traverse the width of the plate.

As for Kershaw, his curveball is different than most other lefty curveballs in large part because of the way he throws.

Your typical left-hander doesn't come right over the top when he throws the ball. They have a tendency to be slingers, and the nature of their deliveries makes it easier for them to put a little extra horizontal movement on a breaking ball.

The tradeoff, however, tends to be less vertical movement.

Consider Jeff Locke and Madison Bumgarner, for example. They both throw from roughly three-quarter arm slots, and their curveballs break in a similar way. With data once again courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Pitcher Horizontal Movement (In.) Vertical Movement (In.)
 Locke  -3.61  -5.16
 Bumgarner  -5.52  -4.24

Bumgarner gets more horizontal break on his curveball, but neither pitcher gets a lot of downward movement. What they throw are closer to slurves than actual curveballs.

Kershaw is different. He throws more over the top than your typical lefty, and that affords him some very righty-like break on his curveball.

Per Brooks Baseball, Kershaw's curveball gets an average of minus-2.99 inches of horizontal break, which puts him more or less in Locke's neighborhood. The difference is that he gets an average of minus-8.51 inches of vertical break, which blows that of Locke and Bumgarner out of the water.

Want to see it in pictures? Very well then.

Skip to the 0:35 mark here, and you'll see Locke freezing Ryan Sweeney with a curveball on the outside corner:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Skip to the 0:25 mark here, and you'll see Kershaw getting Brandon Belt swinging on a hook more or less down the middle:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

And now for Locke's curveball in still form:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

And Kershaw's curveball in still form:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

You can see the difference. Both pitches started behind the batter, but Kershaw's took a nosedive rather than continuing on a relatively straight path to the outside corner like Locke's curveball.

So what sets an elite curveball apart from the rest of the pack?

The short answer, according to the guys with the two most effective curveballs in the game, essentially amounts to originality. There are plenty of good curveballs out there, but nobody throws 'em quite like Wainwright and Kershaw. It stands to reason that their hooks are so successful in large part because hitters just don't see that kind of movement from anyone else.

The benefit of originality works for sliders too.

 

On Sliders: Mere Mortals vs. Darvish, Romo and the Big Unit

Picking out the nastiest slider in the game is sort of like trying to pick out the best Led Zeppelin song. There are so many good ones, and they're all the "best" in their own way.

Yu Darvish's slider, however, stands out as being the "When the Levee Breaks" of MLB sliders. It's my personal favorite, and it also has Nolan Ryan's endorsement (h/t dallasnews.com) as the best in the game.

The numbers support Darvish's slider as well. Per FanGraphs, no pitcher in baseball has saved more runs above average with his slider since the start of last season than Darvish. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters are hitting just .160 against it in 2013 with zero home runs.

And yes, it really is that nasty. We can tell by comparing it to Jason Hammel's slider.

Like Zimmermann's curveball, Hammel's slider is nice and average. For his career, he's saved exactly 0.1 runs above average with it (see FanGraphs) and the movement on it is nothing special.

Here's the comparison between Hammel's slider and Darvish's slider in 2013, once again using data from Brooks Baseball:

Pitcher Horizontal Movement (In.) Vertical Movement (In.)
 Hammel  4.27  -1.71
 Darvish  9.33  -1.01

Hammel has a tendency to get a little more downward movement on his slider, but that advantage doesn't even come close to making up for the advantage Darvish's slider has in horizontal movement.

And once again, the difference shows up in pictures.

Skip to about the 0:24 mark here, and you'll see Hammel getting Vernon Wells swinging on a slider low and away:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Now let's look at Darvish throwing a pitch with more or less the same purpose to Dustin Pedroia at the 0:25 mark here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

And now for the still image showing the movement of Hammel's slider:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

And the still image showing the movement of Darvish's slider:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

Hammel's slider did break to the outside, but much of its energy was spent on downward movement. Darvish's slider looks like it saw Pedroia's bat and then took immediate evasive action both downwards and horizontally. It has a tendency to do that on a regular basis.

As nasty as Darvish's slider is, it's not quite in a league of its own. Per FanGraphs, Sergio Romo has saved more runs above average with his slider than any other reliever in baseball over the last two seasons, and it breaks very much like a Darvish slider.

Just check out the slider Romo throws to Wilin Rosario at about the 0:30 mark here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Per Brooks Baseball, that slider had about 13 inches of horizontal break, and it looked a little something like this:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

 

As Yoda would be inclined to say in this moment: Hit that, you cannot.

The sliders featured by Darvish and Romo are as good as they get for right-handers for pretty much the same reason Wainwright's curve is as good as it gets for right-handers. Any righty can create sharp downward movement with a slider. It takes a special somebody to create sharp downward movement and sharp horizontal movement. Darvish and Romo do that better than everyone else.

Left-handers, on the other hand, once again present an odd sort of challenge due to the slinging nature of their deliveries, but we can get a decent idea of the difference between an average lefty slider and an elite lefty slider by weighing C.J. Wilson's against CC Sabathia's.

Wilson has surrendered 4.5 runs below average with his slider in his career (see FanGraphs), but it's been better lately. In three of the last four years, it's been a slightly above-average pitch for him.

Sabathia's slider, meanwhile, is among the best in history. Per FanGraphs, only one other pitcher has saved more runs above average with his slider than Sabathia since BIS started keeping track in 2002—don't worry, we're going to talk about the guy ahead of him on that list in just a moment.

Here's the movement comparison between Wilson's slider and Sabathia's slider for 2013, according to Brooks Baseball:

Pitcher Horizontal Movement (In.) Vertical Movement (In.)
 Wilson  -1.00  0.00
 Sabathia  -2.22  0.23

There's not a huge difference between the two sliders in terms of vertical movement, as both tend to let gravity do the work. Sabathia's slider, however, tends to feature twice as much horizontal movement.

But since that difference is so minuscule, it's really hard to notice with the naked eye. So I'm going to cheat a little bit and swap out Sabathia for the keeper of the best lefty slider baseball has ever known: Randy Johnson.

Skip to the 0:40 mark here, and you'll see Wilson get Matt Tuiasosopo swinging on a slider down below the knees:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Now skip to the 0:20 mark here and geek out over a classic Big Unit slider:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

This is ordinarily where we go to the still shots to check out the movement, but this is a special case where GIFs are a bit more helpful. Here's a GIF showing the key stages of Wilson's slider:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

And a GIF showing the key stages of Johnson's slider:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Sadly, we don't know the exact movement of the slider Johnson threw, as it was well before science gave the world the PITCHf/x tracking system. In lieu of numbers, the best we can do is adjectives.

The best word for Wilson's slider: "solid."

The best word for the Big Unit's slider: "Holybleepinghogs!"

Something along those lines would also be appropriate for the sliders of Darvish, Romo and Sabathia. While we're at it, we might as well make up words for the curveballs of Wainwright and Kershaw.

Or we could just save time and energy and go with the word that brought us here in the first place: 

Elite.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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