James Shields & Jeremy Hellickson: Getting Ahead ON The Curve | The Process Report

James Shields & Jeremy Hellickson: Getting Ahead ON The Curve

While most individual results are not stable to put stock in just yet, spotting trends – or attempting to – helps keep the idle analytical minds busy.  If you have not noticed by the dozen or so posts we have had on pitching backwards, pitch sequencing, and pitch strategy in general, we have kind of latched on to that sort of stuff in the early portion of the season.

In conjunction with pitching backwards and sequencing, I’ve been watching a lot of first-pitch curveballs from some members of the Rays staff. James Shields has been using the hook in the latter stages of the game as a first pitch and Jeremy Hellickson has followed suit. I found the strategy interesting considering something Joe Maddon told me after a recent Shields’ start. “Nobody likes to swing at curveballs. That’s a pitch that nobody says I’m going to go up and hit a curveball” he said.

I’ve been going back and forth with R.J. about that quote and decided to incorporate some data. Thanks to Joe Lefkowitz’s database, we found that 45% of first-pitch curveballs are called balls, 38% of them are called strikes, and just 4% of them are swinging strikes. With that in mind, it appears that Maddon is correct about hitters not going to bat looking to hit a curveball.

In terms of the Rays, Shields and Hellickson have been the biggest proponents of first-pitch curves.

0-0 Count Usage% Strike% Called Strike% In-Play%










*Does not include last night’s start.

As you can see, both right-handers are using the curve with regularity on the first pitch. In the case of Shields, he is using it nearly 1/3 of the time on first pitches, and getting the league average on called -strikes. His breaking ball is put in play a bit more than Hellickson; however, when you compare it to the in-play percentage on his first-pitch fastball (23%), you can see the effectiveness.

Hitters barely put Hellickson’s first-pitch curveball in play. Although his called-strike percentage is lower than Shields, his overall strike rate is higher. This is because hitters are offering a bit more at Hellickson’s breaking ball, but whiffing.

In each case we are talking about small sample sizes – although Shields added 10 more first-pitch curves last night. For both pitchers, their curveballs will only be effective on the first pitch if A) they have good command of the pitch and B) they are also locating their fastballs well. Going back to the quote from above, I guess nobody likes to swing at curveballs; especially on the first pitch.

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