Game 85: Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and the curveball
Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have been headed down different paths for a while. Scherzer has always been a power pitcher, Porcello has been a sinkerballer. Scherzer’s career has been on an upward trend for more than a year, while Porcello’s rise has stopped and stuttered ever since his tremendous rookie season in 2009.
Both, however, are benefitting greatly from adding a curveball to their vastly different arsenals.
“We are different styled pitchers,” Porcello said, “but we both were kind of battling the same thing. Our changeup, slider, fastball were all hard, and the speed difference was not enough to keep those lefties off-balance.”
That’s where the curveball came in. Scherzer began working with it last year, honed it to the point where he could throw it every now and then down the stretch, then took it a step further this spring. For Porcello, the curveball was something he always had, but rarely threw while he was throwing a slider as a breaking pitch of choice. The Tigers wanted him to throw one or the other.
He threw both with some success at times last summer. This year, he went all-in with the curveball.
“I think Max uses his curveball a little bit differently than I do,” Porcello said, “because his fastball and changeup are real, real putaway pitches. But for me, I’m trying to use it early and often throughout the count, maybe not necessarily trying to strike guys out, but get guys to roll over on it and get some big swings and set up my fastball.”
Left-handed hitters batted .292 with an .831 OPS against Scherzer last season. Two years ago, it was a .281 average and an .841 OPS. This year, they’re hitting him for a .204 average and an .599 OPS. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has nearly doubled.
It’s a little different with Porcello, but Friday was huge for him. After seven scoreless innings at Cleveland, he has dropped his average against left-handers under .300 for the first time since his rookie season. They’re now hitting .295 against him, eight points lower than last year and 30 points under his 2011 numbers.
A major part of that is the curveball. On Friday, he threw it time and again against an Indians lineup that has just two right-handed hitters. He used it for five outs against hitters from the left side of the plate over the first four innings, including a Michael Brantley strikeout and three groundouts.
“It was the game plan going in,” Porcello said, “and the ability to execute it tonight was the difference. The curveball was there. That’s what made it effective. We always try to mix up our pitches against lefties, but there’s certain games where I’m not feeling it as well as I was tonight and then you have to go a different way. But tonight I felt pretty good with my breaking ball and we went to it a lot.”
Alex Avila has seen the curveball progress as the season has gone along.
“To be honest with you, the curveball I saw in Spring Training was a great pitch,” Avila said. “I remember saying several times, ‘That’s an out pitch for him now.’ Over the course of the season, there’ll be times when you won’t have a feel for a certain pitch. But today, he definitely had a feel for it. He was sharp. He was throwing it for strikes. He was throwing it down in the zone to get some swings and misses and some ground balls too.
“I know it’s something that he’s worked hard on. I’m glad he has confidence in it each and every start — even on days when he may not feel as good with it, still have confidence to it. Sometimes you just have to do it that way.”
Porcello threw 27 curveballs Friday, according to brooksbaseball.net. That’s almost as many sinkers (28) as he threw. Add in 30 four-seam fastballs, and he had a balanced arsenal. He wasn’t simply a sinkerballer; he was a pure pitcher.