A Mariner And The League’s Most Unhittable Pitch
I guess I should acknowledge up front that we’ve been through this before — when the Mariners traded Brandon Morrow for Brandon League, we expressed some delight over the fact that, the year prior, League had thrown baseball’s most unhittable pitch, as no other pitch generated a lower contact rate allowed than his splitter. The splitter didn’t work that way when League was a Mariner, though, and he often lost his feel for it, and the end result was that pretty much nobody really missed Brandon League when he became an ex-M. His potential was always so obvious to the eye that his inability to reach it was beyond aggravating.
So these things are fleeting. An unhittable pitch one day might become a liability the next. Everything’s subject to sample-size fluctuation, and not every pitch is thrown with the intent of generating a swing and miss, and pitches all work together so even bothering to isolate one is kind of a fool’s errand. Think long enough and any brand of baseball analysis has too many holes to take too seriously. But we’re here and dag barnit, I have more neat things to say about Danny Farquhar, who just picked up another save. This is probably a classic case of “baseball writer falls in love with pitcher who gets strikeouts,” but then, what’s not to fall in love with? “Man falls in love with smart, attractive woman with edgy sense of humor.” It’s like, yeah, that’s going to happen.
Farquhar, as you understand, throws a fastball, a cut fastball, and a curve. The fastball hangs around the mid-90s, the cutter around the low-90s, and the curve around the high-70s. From a Ryan Divish blog post when Farquhar was first promoted to Seattle:
Farquhar was ignoring the curve ball early on. And he needed that pitch to provide a change in velocity and eye level.
“It’s a put away pitch,” [Daren] Brown said. “Hitters don’t see it, and they’re just not ready for it.”
Farquhar understands its importance now.
“It’s a big offspeed pitch that I need to continue to throw for strikes, continue to mix in there because I have the fastball and cutter which are too hard pitches,” he said. “Even if it’s just showing it to hitters. It’s changing the speed, changing the plane and the eye level. The curve ball is a big difference maker.”
In Farquhar’s first four Tacoma appearances, he allowed five runs in four innings, with two walks and six strikeouts. In his subsequent and last 11 Tacoma appearances, he allowed one run in 16 innings, with two walks and 24 strikeouts. Farquhar got better in Tacoma as he implemented his curve. And, in Tacoma, he put up the kinds of numbers that support his numbers so far with the Mariners. These strikeouts aren’t coming out of nowhere. I’m starting to go off the rails so let’s pull this back.
During his time with the Mariners, Farquhar has listened to coaches and catchers remind him to use the curve more often. In July he talked about Henry Blanco suggesting he throw more inside, but he also talked about throwing more curves. And, through July 6, Farquhar threw 13% curveballs. Since then, he’s thrown 29% curveballs. He’s trimmed his ERA, he’s thrown more strikes, and he’s missed more bats. How good of a pitch has that curveball been? This good of a pitch, referring to the following information.
I looked at all starters and relievers in baseball, and then I looked at the 1,279 individual pitches of theirs that have been offered at at least 50 times. So, all the pitches that’ve been swung at 50 times or more, from Felix Hernandez’s changeup to Boone Logan’s slider. When I had all those pitches, I sorted them by contact rate allowed, just to see what’s what as of Monday, August 19. Danny Farquhar’s curveball has a contact rate allowed of 33.3%. It has been, to date, baseball’s most unhittable pitch.
By more than five percentage points. The sample, naturally, is small, but hitters have swung at Farquhar’s curve 51 times, and 34 times, they’ve missed. Against the curve, hitters have two singles, a double, and 27 outs, and that’s been important given their success against his straighter stuff. The whole idea is to use the curve to give hitters a different look and mess with their timing. The pitch, then, has been invaluable, because it’s been almost impossible to square up and because it’s made the other pitches better.
You know who else the Mariners have used as a closer who throws a fastball and a curveball? Put that way, Farquhar has some things in common with Tom Wilhelmsen, but their curves are different, and Farquhar has two fastballs instead of Wilhelmsen’s one. And over his fastballs Farquhar has superior command, so it’s less likely he’ll hit a stretch where he just looks lost. Wilhelmsen, last year, was quite good, and Farquhar is far from unbeatable, but just objectively, Farquhar seems like a better bet, because he has a better idea of where the ball’s going and because he has a more complete repertoire. Wilhelmsen has thrown good changeups, but he doesn’t presently have a good changeup. That’s one of the things he’s working on. Farquhar was working on throwing more curves, but he’s doing that now, and he’s been outstanding.
The danger, if you want to call it that, is that Farquhar is still new. Whatever reports people had on him before 2013 don’t mean much anymore, so new reports are being written, and maybe he slips into exploitable patterns. Maybe there’s going to be an adjustment, and maybe people are going to either look for that curve or lay off of it. Or maybe Farquhar will just get worse. Maybe there’s some kind of tell, and maybe Farquhar’s curve won’t be baseball’s most unhittable pitch for long. We’ve already seen how quickly these labels can be shed. Baseball isn’t static and all the numbers change until they’re no longer being generated. But here’s something we know about Danny Farquhar: he isn’t just a reliever with heat and a cutter. He also has a curve that people haven’t been able to hit yet. Perhaps the league will come around, but we can only worry about what’s happened so far, and what’s happened so far is most promising.