ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The four-game sweep of the Padres was full of incredible moments. Aledmys Diaz walked off the final game with a bases-loaded single, Carlos Martinez battled through a nosebleed to dominate San Diego in his start, Matt Holliday narrowly missed a traumatic injury when he was struck in the face by a fastball. Jedd Gyorko reached a terrifying final form, going 8-for-14 with four homers and seven RBIs against his former team.
But in the eighth inning of game one of Wednesday’s doubleheader, another eye-catching thing happened.
It wasn’t a long ball or a 105 mile per hour fastball, but it may signal something even more significant. Kevin Siegrist threw back-to-back curveballs to Ryan Schimpf, and looked to have complete command of the pitch.
“I’ve been able to throw it for strikes, which has been huge for me. It keeps hitters honest and they have to be aware of it,” he said. “Last year, with my slider, I think they could just write it off and sit on other stuff. So it’s helping me become a better pitcher.”
This offseason, Siegrist endeavored to add a curve ball to his repertoire. This spring, it was still very much in development, but manager Mike Matheny encouraged his stud reliever to stick with it.
Every time the lefty threw the pitch in a game (spring or otherwise), Matheny would voice encouragement. Even if it bounced in, he gave positive reinforcement.
“He needs to show it. I saw a couple of swings against him that it looked like it was in the back of their minds,” Matheny said. “Before, a lot of left-handed hitters would walk in there just sold out that they’re going to get a heater.”
Last season, Siegrist never threw a single curveball. He instead relied on his slider, a pitch that didn’t have the sharpness required to draw hitters away from his high-velocity fastball. He threw 93 sliders, but only 20 percent of them went for strikes. Hitters put it in play nearly 13 percent of the time, primarily as a line drive or fly ball. Those aren’t the sort of numbers one sees on a strong breaking ball, so Siegrist decided to try a different pitch.
He’s deployed the curve gingerly this season, throwing only 40 so far on the year. But he’s throwing it for strikes 27 percent of the time, and drawing a five percent ground ball rate. His slider topped out at just over a one percent ground ball rate last season.
Perhaps that’s why he’s thrown just one slider in 2016.
Wednesday, he unleashed two very different curves on Schimpf. The first was 71 mph, looping toward the lefty before diving back into the zone for a called strike. Schimpf was frozen solid by the breaker and Yadier Molina called for an encore.
The second time, Siegrist threw a 74 mph curve low in the zone with a tight, late break. Schimpf swung, but the pitch dove into the dirt underneath his bat. The swing and miss was the third strike of the at bat, and Siegrist walked off the field having effectively leveraged his new pitch.
Many pitchers developing the curveball go through a phase where the offering is nothing more than a “show pitch;” meaning they mix it in occasionally just to throw the hitter’s timing off. They can’t throw it for a strike consistently, and they can’t throw it as a swing-and-miss pitch with any reliability. Often they will either miss the zone badly or hang the curve, making it only viable as a rhythm-breaking decoy.
Masters of the hook, like Adam Wainwright, can hit a catcher’s mitt every time and can vary the size and timing of the pitch’s break.
Wednesday, Siegrist proved he has command of his new toy, even if he’s hesitant to say so.
“I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, I’m just trying to throw a good curveball. I think I can pretty much mix it up whether I want it in the zone or as a strikeout pitch, but as far as different types of spin, I’m not trying to do anything different there. I’m just trying to make it as effective as I possibly can. I think it’s coming along pretty good,” he said.
Already possessing a dynamic fastball and a deceptive changeup, the 27-year-old is making himself a nightmare for hitters. The addition of the curveball can also help increase his effectiveness against lefties, something that has been a peculiar hangup for him.
“Having that big breaking ball, to be able to throw it for a strike like he did and then be able to throw it for a chase, I still think that’s a game-changer for him. I think it’s going to help him with the right hand hitters but certainly with the lefties,” Matheny said. “There’s no reason his splits should be flipped like they are. I think that’s going to continue to change with that breaking ball.”
For his career, lefties hit nearly 50 points better against Siegrist than righties, with an on base percentage nearly 100 points better. It’s a strange case of reverse splits, and one that has kept him from fully realizing his dominance out of the bullpen.
With his curveball evolving into a legitimate threat, Siegrist could see those numbers normalize in a hurry.
“People always want to talk about splits with me. I guess it is kind of odd that lefties hit better than righties. I mean I’ll take any help I can get. If it becomes a pitch I can use all the time against lefties, which I feel like I can, it should help me out,” he said.
The progress is starting to show this season. The average gap between righties and lefties has dropped by 10 points, and the on base percentage gap is down to 75 points.
There’s still work to be done, but Wednesday’s performance demonstrated Siegrist is a lot closer to having a top tier curveball than not having one at all.