Is Brett Cecil's Curveball Still Improving?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Cecil has yet to give up a run in 2014 and his filthy curveball has played a huge role.

When the Blue Jays selected Brett Cecil with the 38th overall selection of the 2007 draft it was a somewhat peculiar choice.

There was no doubt that the southpaw out of the University of Maryland was a talented pitcher, but it seemed early in the draft to be taking a guy who was a closer at the NCAA level. The Jays didn't see Cecil as a closer though; they saw the left-hander as a top-flight starter.

Early in his pro career, Brett Cecil made the team and then-GM J.P. Ricciardi look brilliant. In 2007 Cecil put up a 1.27 ERA and 2.33 FIP at Auburn and he moved quickly through the system, posting a 2.55 ERA and 2.75 FIP at Double-A New Hampshire the next season.

Cecil debuted at the MLB level in 2009 at the age of 23. He pitched 93.2 innings with a fairly ugly 5.30 ERA, a 5.37 FIP and a 0.4 WAR. The next season, Cecil had his best year as a starter, putting up a 2.5 WAR season with a 15-7 record, posting a 4.22 ERA and 4.03 FIP.

Unfortunately for the Maryland native, that would be the peak of his career as a starter.

In 2011 and the first part of 2012 Cecil struggled with velocity issues, command issues and pretty much every issue a pitcher could possibly have before the transition to life as a reliever began.

In the back half of 2012 Cecil found a permanent home in bullpen, a place where he has absolutely excelled. The following table shows Cecil's starter/reliever splits:

Role

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Starter

439.1

6.45

3.13

1.39

4.77

4.78

4.38

Reliever

80.1

10.31

3.47

0.45

2.91

2.76

3.12

It is much, much harder to be a starter than a reliever, but Cecil has made a pretty complete transformation by coming out of the pen. Gone is the struggling starter and in his place is a borderline dominant reliever.

While Cecil is a veteran player, his low innings totals as a reliever show him to be something of neophyte when it comes to relieving at the big league level. He was a closer in college, so it's not as if he's unfamiliar with the concept mentally, but the MLB is a different animal.

As the southpaw has adjusted to life as a reliever, his game has changed. Like many converted starters he has severely condensed his arsenal and limited himself to basically a single off-speed pitch: the curveball.

Cecil's slider was his primary breaking ball as a starter, but he scrapped in in favor of a curve since becoming a reliever. The following chart shows the left-hander's curveball usage over the last three years according to FanGraphs.

Year

Curveball Percentage

2012

23.7%

2013

27.1%

2014

35.4%

It's not entirely surprising that Cecil has relied on his curveball more and more, but what's interesting is that it has gotten more and more effective each season.

Year

Whiff%

Whiffs per Swing

Velocity

2012

11.3%

28.4%

78.7

2013

19.3%

46.8%

82.2

2014

25.0%

66.7%

83.6

The 2014 numbers here come from absolutely tiny samples, but they are worth monitoring going forward. Cecil never threw his curveball more than 10% of time in any season when he was a starter so it does seem possible that it has improved with greater use.

Additionally, while we rarely think of velocity as the key to an effective curveball, it is definitely interesting that Cecil keeps throwing his marquee breaking ball harder and harder as time goes on.

So little baseball has been played so far that it is very difficult to figure out what's significant and what isn't. Mike Trout leads the league in WAR, so it isn't complete chaos, but we are at a stage of the year where Melky Cabrera is the most valuable Cabrera in baseball.

However, at this moment in time Brett Cecil is throwing his curveball with greater velocity, frequency, and effectiveness. That may well mean nothing. Alternatively, it could not mean nothing.

With Cecil likely to appear more than 70 times this year, it would be nice if the latter was true.

Note: None of the stats above include last night's outing from Cecil. I gambled on Brett not finding his way to the mound last night. I lost.

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