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Germán Márquez and curveball usage

Colorado Rockies news and links for Thursday, August 25th, 2022

By now, we all know about the struggles of Germán Márquez. 2022 has been his worst full season as a major leaguer, with his park-adjusted ERA+ dropping below the 100 (average) mark for the first time in his career. When looking at this lost season, going over the process becomes a good way to look for things you might like moving forward, just to have something to hold onto. And last time out against the Texas Rangers, Germán Márquez did something he hasn’t done in three years, something that will frequently lead to success: he threw his best pitch well over a third of the time.

The Timeline

Germán’s curveball has always been his best pitch. His feel for it was one of the big reasons he was well thought of as a young teenage pitching prospect, and it was his ticket to what was supposed to be a long and successful MLB career. Its shape and velocity has evolved over the years, as I’ve covered before on this very site, but it’s remained one of the better curves in all of MLB, and a huge outlier in terms of velocity. Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 200 curveballs this season, Márquez’s trademark breaker ranks 3rd in velocity at a whopping 86.8 MPH. The next closest starter is the Braves’ Kyle Wright, who throws it at 84.4 MPH on average, almost 2.5 MPH slower. Not even the mighty Jacob deGrom, whose fastball sits between 99-101 MPH, throws his curveball anywhere near as hard, as the Mets ace is around 84 MPH with it.

Velocity is a big part of making a curveball good, but Márquez’s breaking ball is not just hard, it’s also sharp. It has late, biting movement and frequently induces swings when it’s well out of the zone because of it. It also induces swings and misses (batters whiff about 40% of the time when they take a cut against it) and doesn’t get hit hard. Through the ups and downs of his fastball and slider, the one constant for Márquez throughout his career has been his extraordinary curveball, a pitch that consistently ranks among the best and most valuable offerings in baseball. Therefore, it only makes sense that he throws it often, right?

Baseball Savant

Throwing your best pitch very often might make sense, but it’s not what Márquez has done. For his career, he’s thrown it 21.9% of the time, about half as often as his four-seamer (42.5%) and far less often than fastballs in general (55.8%). That’s dubious game strategy, and in fact, his curveball usage has been trending down over the years in favor of more sinkers and sliders. But something interesting has been happening as of late:

Baseball Savant

That’s Germán’s curveball usage (in % of total pitches thrown) for every game of his career so far. I know it’s tough to identify particular games, but what we’re looking at here is the trend. As you can see, starting in 2020 and continuing through the start of 2022, his curveball started being used less and less, but that has started to change as of late. In fact, in his last start against the Rangers he threw that devastating breaking ball 37.8% of the time, his highest single-game curveball usage since July 31st, 2019. In that game, he struck out 10 Dodgers through six innings of 2-hit, shutout ball before exiting early with cramps. In his start against the Rangers, the opponent went 0-for-10 with 7 strikeouts against the curve. Maybe there’s something to throwing your best pitch more often.

What’s The Way Forward?

Bringing solutions to the table is never easy, especially when considering the complexity of pitching in Major League Baseball. I’m no pitching coach, but I do know some very obvious things about the current version of Germán Márquez:

  • His fastball is not built for swings and misses. Germán throws hard, and can throw very hard very late into his outings. However, two key aspects of every dominant swing-and-miss fastball elude him. One is extension: Márquez is a very short strider by nature, so he releases the ball further away from home plate than others. This means valuable extra milliseconds for a batter to judge and react to a fastball. The other key is shape: Germán doesn’t spin the fastball a lot, so while his spin efficiency is solid, his four-seamer lacks life and often gets hit quite hard. The same goes for his sinker. This is all compounded by the Rockies and their overall refusal to utilize the high fastball as a weapon, particularly in two-strike counts. It makes Germán a hard thrower who can’t rely on his fastball to get a strikeout when he needs it.
  • His slider is good at times, but often inconsistent. When Márquez broke out as a frontline pitcher in 2018 and set the all-time single season strikeout record for a Rockies hurler with 230, the sudden development of his slider had a lot to do with that. In 2018, batters hit .162 and slugged .248 against his slider. Since 2019 started, they’ve hit .262 and slugged .498 against it. It’s never been as good as it was in 2018 (even though it’s had its moments, particularly in 2020), yet its usage kept going up, at least until halfway through 2022. The decline in deployment as of late tells me they’re aware of this, and will probably work to bring it back to life next season.
  • His changeup feel hasn’t developed up to this point. As a youngster, it was easy to project at least a solid changeup for Germán. His delivery was simple, athletic and without a lot of effort, and his good fastball and curveball control were more good signs for the eventual arrival of a quality slowball that would help him keep lefties off balance. But for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet. As with most right-handed Rockies pitchers, the changeup simply hasn’t been a pitch he’s developed any control or movement for (and as a result, confidence). Now, I’m not going to say it’s never going to happen because, contrary to what some might believe, Germán is still very young. He’s only 27 years old! A solid cambio could eventually arrive, but as of now it’s not a weapon for him.
  • His curveball is extraordinary. This is the main point of the whole piece. Germán’s curveball is a marvelous pitch: a hard, deceptive, biting breaking ball that induces swings and misses, chases and poor contact galore. The only nitpick I have with it is he could maybe throw it for strikes a bit more often, but it’s a nasty pitch and by far his best and most consistent offering.

What do these four points seem to direct Germán to? Throw the curveball, and throw it a ton. One of the main consequences of modern pitcher development has been the death of the phrase “establish the fastball”, and its rebirth as “establish your best pitch”. If your best pitch is a change, throw that change a lot. If it’s a fastball, throw the fastball a lot. And if it’s a curveball, as is the case with Germán Márquez, then throw it a lot too, for both chases and strikes. Make them beat you with your best pitch. The ace is still in Germán Márquez, I believe that. It’s buried for now, but it can rise back up again.

★ ★ ★

The Mystic Art of Pitch Tunneling | Prospects Live

A really interesting, data-centric article about the concept of tunneling. It mentions the general guidelines, specific tunneling combinations, and more. Fantastic piece.

Colorado Rockies 2023 schedule released | Purple Row

In case some of you fine folks missed it, MLB teams released their preliminary 2023 schedules yesterday, and the format is very different. The number of games against division opponents goes from 76 to 52, intraleague games go from 66 to 64, and (hold onto your seats) interleague games more than double, from 20 to 46. Also, the Rockies’ “natural interleague rival” has been deemed to be the Houston Astros, so they’ll play one extra series against them. Just our luck, huh?

On The Farm

Triple-A: Round Rock Express 9, Albuquerque Isotopes 5

Entering the top of the 9th, the Isotopes (54-64) held a 5-3 lead, and Zach Lee struck out the first batter he faced. Then, Round Rock batters went: single/single/single/RBI walk/2 RBI single/flyout/2 RBI triple/RBI single before mercifully making the third out. That’s a six-run rally with only one extra-base hit, and Albuquerque went down quietly in their half of the 9th. The collapse came after eight innings of very solid pitching, too. Starter Brandon Gold was very solid (6.0 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR) and the bullpen went six up, six down until entering the fateful 9th. Taylor Snyder led the lineup, going 3-for-4 with a homer, two RBI and a stolen base, but five runs ended up not being nearly enough. The Isotopes will turn to right-hander Zach Neal (5-5, 7.03 ERA) as they look to grab a series lead against the Express.

Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats 0, Portland Sea Dogs 8

A bad day for the Yard Goats (67-48), as they were vastly outplayed in every manner you can think of. They struck out 14 times, managed just six hits and a pair of walks, had no extra-base hits, made three errors, went 0-for-6 with RISP and grounded into two double plays. Starter Mike Ruff got roughed up as well (2.2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 3 K, 0 HR), so the lone bright spot would be Jared Biddy tossing two perfect innings in relief with a pair of strikeouts. Hartford’s starter is TBD at the time of writing this piece.

High-A: Spokane Indians 7, Everett AquaSox 1

Spokane improves to 59-54 on the back of a terrific performance by starter Anderson Amarista, who tossed six innings of one-hit, shutout ball (6.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 6 K) and got the win in his High-A debut. It was a day of singles for the Spokane bats, as they piled up 13 total hits with only two of them (a Mateo Gil triple and a Hunter Goodman home run) going for extra bases. You know how in old school lineups, the 3-4-5 batters were often the best on the team, and the ones who needed to drive in the runs? That was the case for Spokane in yesterday’s ballgame, with nº 26 PurP Hunter Goodman, Colin Simpson and Mateo Gil going a combined 7-for-14 with six of the seven runs and four of the six RBI. Simpson was on base four times, picking up three singles and a walk, and the three of them were right in the middle of a three-run 9th, which more or less sealed the game for the good guys. Nº 14 PurP Chris McMahon will take the hill today, making his second start of the season for Spokane after picking up the win in his previous outing.

Low-A: Stockton Ports 2, Fresno Grizzlies 3

A good, low scoring win for the Fresno Grizzlies as they keep rolling right along at 71-45. The Grizzlies have won eight in a row and are 15-5 overall in August. It was an unusually quiet game for the lineup, but the pitching staff came through big time. Jaden Hill, in his second start in Fresno, was excellent (3.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K, 0 HR), throwing 32 of his 44 pitches for strikes. He’s struck out 12, walked one and allowed just one run across his first six innings at Low-A so far. A good angle of his incredible arm speed:

After Hill departed, Cullen Kafka took over and pitched well, tossing 4.1 scoreless frames, dancing around traffic (six hits and two walks) ans to pick up a win. But when the Ports loaded the bases against him with one out in the 8th, 20-year-old Ángel Chivili was called upon to get out of a big jam with the game-tying run in scoring position. Chivili delivered big, striking out his first batter and then getting a pop-out to end the threat and strand the bases loaded.

He allowed a run in the ninth (after a one-out triple), but Chivili closed the door for a fantastic five-out save, the first multi-inning save of his pro career and his sixth overall, all for Fresno this very season. This fantastic pitching performance helped masked a pretty lackluster night at the plate for the typically high-flying Grizzlies, as only two batters (nº 16 PurP Yanquiel Fernández and nº 31 PurP Juan Brito) reached base more than once. Fernández, who went 2-for-4 with a double, drove in his MiLB-leading 97th run of the season, and Zach Kokoska hit a solo homer to kick off the scoring for Fresno, but this was a ballgame won by the arms. Brayan Castillo (2-4, 6.14 ERA) will get the ball today, looking to continue Fresno’s torrid August pace.

★ ★ ★

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