Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez (51) pitches in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE
The Pittsburgh Pirates have all but cornered the market on curveball-enthusiast starting pitchers. How weird and probably coincidental.
Tuesday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for Wandy Rodriguez. You might not have noticed, because it's been an unusually busy few days in major league baseball. Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante are Tigers now. Ichiro Suzuki is a Yankee. Hanley Ramirez is a Dodger. Cole Hamels is a Phillie for a while. Alex Rodriguez is injured. Significant, meaningful news has been coming fast and furious, which is a change from the uninteresting news that's usually coming fast and furious instead.
So the Wandy Rodriguez move was a pretty quiet one, relatively speaking. It's odd -- the Astros were danging Rodriguez for a while. For at least a calendar year. His 3.79 ERA in 2012 is his highest ERA since 2007. He's been durable, he's been dependable, he's been effective, and only now can we say he's been moved, after all this time. Sure, Rodriguez was signed to a large contract, but he's been a valuable pitcher for Houston and he should be a valuable pitcher for Pittsburgh.
There's a fun side to this deal. I guess there are a few fun sides, with one of them being that the Pirates improved their playoff position. The Pirates look like they could go to the postseason, which is heartwarming news for a lot of baseball fans who don't realize the Pirates play in the same city as the Steelers and Penguins. That'll take the shine off the fairy tale. Additionally, Wandy Rodriguez is an extreme curveballer. He joins A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard in the Pirates' rotation, and they are also extreme curveballers. These are the three most extreme curveballers in baseball.
According to FanGraphs, this is the top of the 2012 curveball-rate leaderboard, looking only at starting pitchers:
1. Rodriguez, 31.5% curveballs
2. Burnett, 29.8%
3. Bedard, 26.9%
Bedard has a very slim lead over Ivan Nova, who's pitching on Wednesday, so it's possible that there could be some shuffling around positions 3 and 4. At this moment in time, though, the Pirates' rotation includes the three starters who throw the most curves.
Should we read into this as being part of some organizational plan? No, almost certainly not. The Pirates probably like curveballs, but every team probably likes curveballs, because good curveballs are dangerous and Rodriguez, Burnett, and Bedard throw good curveballs. I don't think the Pirates sought these guys out specifically for the purpose of hoarding curveballers. Bedard was a talented free-agent signing who came cheap, where other, higher-profile free agents weren't interested in joining the Pirates. Burnett fell in the Pirates' lap after the Yankees grew tired of him. Rodriguez was an available boost from the same division who didn't cost what other options on the market would cost. I can only imagine that this is coincidental.
But there's nothing wrong with celebrating coincidences, and I figured I'd compare and contrast the three curves these guys throw. We look at .gifs, with no effort made to select the same camera angles because I am extraordinarily lazy. Right now, in fact, I'm dictating these words to a teenager I paid to sit in front of my laptop and touch my keyboard. I don't really feel like typing, and speaking is much much easier.
Rodriguez and Bedard are both southpaws, and their curveballs are strikingly similar. Burnett's the righty, and Burnett's curve is the exception, if you can truly have an exception in a cluster of three. Burnett's curve is widely known as a knuckle-curve, and he throws it in the low-80s. He throws it as a swing-and-miss pitch, often low near or in the dirt. Approximately three out of every seven swings taken against Burnett's curveball have whiffed. It doesn't generate that many called strikes.
Both Rodriguez and Bedard throw their curves around 76 miles per hour from similar arm slots. They have pretty good command of the pitch and are willing to use it in any count. They're not swing-and-miss weapons to the degree that Burnett's curve is, but they're obviously not easy to hit, with Bedard's generating more called strikes and Rodriguez's generating more whiffs. Both curves come with a lot of drop, with Rodriguez's being closer to 12-to-6 and Bedard's curve featuring greater horizontal movement.
Something all three curves have in common is that when they're hit, they're typically put on the ground. Of curves put in play against Rodriguez, 62 percent have gone for grounders. Against Bedard, 62 percent as well. Burnett checks in closer to 65 percent. It's difficult to hit the lower half of a curveball; it's difficult to hit a curveball.
The Pirates' rotation is an oddity, and the Pirates' rotation should be more effective going forward now that it includes Wandy Rodriguez. These three starters throw an incredible amount of curveballs, and while that doesn't tell us anything about how good they are or about what the Pirates are trying to build, consider this a market cornered. Two of the curves are very much alike, while one stands out on its own. In that regard, maybe we shouldn't be so casual about classifying pitch types; maybe Rodriguez, Bedard, and Burnett shouldn't actually be grouped together. But I went ahead and grouped them together and you didn't stop me, so here we are. Curveballs. The Pirates have them!