When you think about offensive production against a specific pitch type, a few things come to mind. First, certain pitches are harder to hit than others for certain hitters, but you have to remember that hitting a pitch or not is also based on the other pitches in a given arsenal. Hitting a slider is hard, but hitting a slider is much harder if the pitcher also has a great fastball and no predictable pattern.
Second, hitting against a certain pitch is as much about knowing when not to swing as it is about doing damage. Maybe you can’t crush a cutter, but if you know to lay off that pitch and can recognize it, you’re often in good shape. This whole idea is complicated and interrelated. We shouldn’t forget that, but when you start aggregating and getting lots of pitches in the data set some of these problems melt away.
Next we need to have some way of measuring performance against a certain pitch type and we want a statistic that allows us to give credit for balls and strikes that aren’t put in play. For that reason, we’re going to look at Pitch Type Linear Weights. That name might scare you off, but it’s a pretty simple concept.
Pitch Type Linear Weights simply measure the change in run expectancy from one count to another. So if you are in a 0-0 count and take a ball, the change in run expectancy from 0-0 to 1-0 is the value attached to that pitch. If you get a single on that 1-0 pitch, you get credit for that run value change. Here’s my full explanation over at FanGraphs.
All you need to know for this article is that league average is set to zero and that really good curveball hitting teams typically are three quarters of a run above average per 100 curveballs and bad teams are usually three quarters of a run below average per 100 curveballs. So that looks like -0.75 wCU/C to 0.75 wCU/C.
All of that explanation is setting you up for the big reveal. The 2014 Tigers were the best curveball hitting team in baseball by this measure. They were also the best curveball hitting team since the start of the PITCHf/x era (2007-present). By a huge margin.
The average team is usually within -0.10 to 0.10 runs per 100 pitches against curveballs. The 2014 Tigers were 1.84 runs better than average per 100 pitches. The second best team during the last eight years came in at 1.41 runs better than average.
Out of the 240 team-seasons since 2007, no team has come close to the Tigers’ 2014 performance against curveballs. The standard deviation is roughly 0.55. This means that roughly 68 percent of the values should be between -0.55 and 0.55 and about 95 percent of the values should be within -1.1 and 1.1. The Tigers are more than three standard deviations above the mean. That should happen about once every 1,000 team-season (once every thirty or so years).
And it isn’t like the distribution is funky. Only five teams have a wCU/C above 1.10 and only the Tigers are above 1.41. This is a seriously amazing mark. Let’s see where it’s coming from.
Here’s how the Tigers who got more than 100 PA performed in 2014. There are a few guys who did worse than average but they have Kinsler (+5.09), J.D. Martinez (+4.76), Davis (+4.32), Cabrera (+3.16), Victor Martinez (+2.65), Castellanos (+1.92), and Torii Hunter (+1.91).
Out of the 240 team-seasons since 2007, no team has come close to the Tigers’ 2014 performance against curveballs.
In 2014, 433 players got 100 or more PA. Those Tigers listed above ranked 8th, 11th, 16th, 30th, 37th, 66th, and 67th. That’s seven full time players in the top 15 percent of the league against curveballs.
Now, these pitch type linear weights aren’t the most predictive stats in the world for individual players because your performance against them often depends on other pitches in the arsenal, but Kinsler, Davis, Cabrera, VMart, and Hunter have been consistently good against hooks in the past. At least three of those five guys will be major players on the 2015 club and Castellanos and JD Martinez are simply too new to hang a history on them.
It’s probably as simple as saying the Tigers have a number of hitters who can really hit a curveball and they all happened to have great years at the same time, but it’s possible there’s an organizational aspect to this. Only Castellanos is homegrown, but they may have good scouting data or analysts and coaches who are good at helping players predict when curveballs are coming.
There’s no reason to think they’ll have another record setting year in 2015, but they should keep hitting curveballs well. The 2014 version of the team was one of the best offenses in the game in large part because they crushed curveballs in a way that no team ever has. Too bad Cespedes is more into fastballs and sliders.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44