What an interesting contrast in styles last night as Philadelphia dealt the St Louis Cardinals their eighteenth loss in their last 24 games – this one by a convincing 11-4 score (box score).
The Cardinals gave the ball to their eighth-ranked prospect, a left-handed fire-baller named Genesis Cabrera. Making his major league debut, Cabrera lasted just 3.2 innings and 53 pitches. Thirty-eight of the 53 pitches were fastballs, averaging almost 97 mph with the fastest reaching 98.8 on the BrooksBaseball gun (found here).
On the other side, Philadelphia turned to veteran right-hander Aaron Nola. Aaron gave Philadelphia 7 innings yielding just 1 run on 4 hits while striking out 8. Aaron’s fastball is not considered elite. Again, according to Brooks, Aaron averaged just 93.1 mph on his heater. The difference making pitch yesterday was his curve. There are few things more devastating for a slumping team (like the Cardinals) than to face a pitcher that’s throwing his curve for a strike.
For the game, Aaron threw 35 of them (slightly more than one third of his 102 pitches). The Cardinals swung at 17 of the 35. Of the 17 swings, they put the ball in play 8 times (getting 2 hits); swung and missed 5 other times; and fouled off the other 4. Of the 18 curves that they took, 11 were called strikes – 61.1%.
That 61% was enough. Although the pitch was only a third of his repertoire, because he demonstrated that he could throw it for a strike most of the time, that curve occupied the batter’s mind. In many cases last night, worrying about that curve made the Cardinal hitters noticeably defensive.
Perhaps the best example of this was the fourth inning. Nola took the mound staked to a 4-0 lead. Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter gave him a tough at bat, eventually being called out on strikes on the sixth pitch (a fastball just above the knees). But Nola then hung a first-pitch curve to Matt Wieters, who sent the pitch out of the park. Philadelphia’s lead was now 4-1.
Aaron started Munoz out with a change that Yairo swung over top of. The 0-1 pitch that followed would be the only fastball that Munoz would get in the at bat. It was, in fact, the last fastball Aaron threw that inning. The pitch was in off the plate, but Munoz wanted it and fouled it off. Now ahead 0-2, Nola went back to that curve – well outside, but with two strikes Yairo was protecting and fouled it off. The fourth pitch was a change that floated down and in, but Munoz couldn’t hold up and he struck out, swinging.
Now it was Bader’s turn. This was even easier. Aaron went changeup low, changeup inside, curveball outside – three pitches, no fastballs, three swings, three misses.
By the scoreboard, all of Aaron’s last seven pitches of the inning were strikes – although only the first pitch to Munoz would actually have been called a strike.
This was a fairly consistent pattern throughout. For the game, half of the 38 batters the Cardinals sent to the plate never saw an official ball during the plate appearance – about twice the usual rate.
Between Aaron floating enough first-pitch curves over for strikes, and the anxious Cardinal hitters expanding their zones, Nola found himself working comfortably ahead most of the night.
Five different batters hit 0-1 offerings. All of them grounded out. Nola played that game with Paul DeJong three different times, getting a called first strike (twice on that curve) and then a groundball as DeJong jumped on the next offering.
Seven other Cardinals faced 0-2 counts. Six of them struck out – all swinging, mostly at breaking balls like Munoz and Bader. Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) batters strike out in 0-2 counts about 50% of the time.
That curve ball is, arguably, baseball’s most difficult pitch to command. When commanded though, it is, arguably, baseball’s most potent equalizer.
Last night for Nola and the Phillies, it was all of that.