St. Louis Cardinals: Brett Cecil, His Repertoire, and His Curveball

A formal introduction to the first of the St. Louis Cardinals shiny new additions, Brett Cecil.

Last week, Trevor covered Brett Cecil’s unique career path and how he fits in the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. Today, I’m diving in to explore Cecil’s repertoire and approach. Spoiler: his curveball is really good.

Upon moving to the bullpen full time in 2013, Brett Cecil went from a pretty bad starter to an All-Star reliever. As a starter, he featured as many as six offerings but found (very) limited success. After moving to the bullpen, he focused his approach and evolved into a curveball first pitcher, which has led to dramatic improvement.

As a reliever, Brett Cecil has worked primarily in the seventh or eighth innings. He is no stranger to October baseball, either. Thus far, he has thrived under the postseason pressure in limited experience, giving up zero earned runs across 6.0 innings spanning eight appearances.

I wanted to take a deeper look into exactly what kind of pitcher the St. Louis Cardinals acquired in Brett Cecil. First, I’ll take a quick look at Cecil’s pitch selection below.

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There are a few things that stick out. First, Cecil features a full array of four pitches against RHHs, while tossing out the changeup against LHHs. Additionally, he is a curveball-first pitcher, relying on the curve more often than any other pitch every season. Lastly, he has essentially scrapped his cutter in favor of more curves and fourseamers.

The move to the bullpen sparked a huge increase in Cecil’s curveball usage, and is the biggest driver behind his success as a reliever. He throws a hard curve, which has averaged 83.92 MPH since 2013, third highest among all relievers with 500+ pitches since the start of 2013. It is clearly his best pitch, and opposing hitters have averaged a wRC+ of only 38 against the breaking ball.

If you’ve never seen his curveball before, here’s a quick introduction. Words don’t really do it justice, so I compiled a few short gifs using highlights from MLB.com. First, a look from Game 4 of the NLCS with Toronto leading by one run and facing elimination with a loss:

Next, here’s how it looks against one of the best young hitters in baseball, Francisco Lindor:

And against in a bases loaded jam, facing one of the top power hitting lefties in the MLB, Chris Davis:

You don’t need me to tell you his curveball is nasty. In addition to the curveball, another key to Cecil’s success is his willingness to attack both sides of the plate against RHHs and LHHs, as shown in his 2016 location heatmaps from June 30th on (more on that shortly). First, against RHH:

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Since this is a relatively small sample size (about 400 pitches), the heatmaps are a little less tight than you’d expect over a full season or multiple seasons. However, there are a few clear patterns.

Cecil uses his fourseamer to pound the high-inside corner, while letting his sinker start on a similar path before tailing to the high-outside corner. His hard curve starts in the same plane as the fastballs before diving lower in the zone. Additionally, the sinker sets up his changeup, which fades to the low-outside corner.

Next, vs. LHH:

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Similar patterns emerge against lefties. Cecil uses his fourseamer to hit the left side of the plate, now the high-outside corner for a LHH, while driving his sinker high and inside. Again, Cecil throws his hard curveball on the same plane as the fastballs before letting it break away from the hitter.

Since Cecil keeps a relatively even mix of curveballs and fastballs against righties and lefties, his approach is extremely deceptive.

Using Baseball Prospectus new pitch tunnel statistics, we can see that Brett Cecil’s pitches have an average tunnel differential of only 9.42 inches, better than the average of 10 inches and within the best 20% among all pitchers. This means that, on average, at the time a batter must decide to swing, Cecil’s pitches are extremely difficult to differentiate.

Additionally, Cecil’s Break:Tunnel ratio of .3003 in 2016 ranked in the top 30% of tracked pitchers. In the words of Baseball Prospectus, “a large ratio between pitches means that the pitches are either tightly clustered at the hitter’s decision-making point or the pitches are separating a lot after the hitter has selected a location to swing at.”

So, against Cecil, the batter is less likely to recognize the pitch he is trying to hit, and instead is guessing what pitch he is trying to hit. Once he takes a guess at what pitch he is swinging at and where to swing, the ball breaks late and breaks a lot. The result?

Swings like this:

and this:

Now that we’ve covered the fun stuff, let’s address the biggest Brett Cecil concern. He is coming off his worst season as a reliever. He threw only 36.2 innings out of the bullpen, his lowest since 2013. Additionally, he owned a 3.93 ERA, more than a full run worse than his previous high of 2.88 as a reliever set in 2013.

Yet, it is important to note that Cecil struggled with his health early in 2016. He hit the DL on May 14th with a left triceps strain before returning June 30th. Using those dates as the before and after, it is clear that Cecil benefited from the time off.

Post-injury, Cecil looked very much like he did during his dominant run from 2013 to 2015. Based on that return to form, there’s little reason to worry too much heading into 2017. If you’re still concerned, take another look at his curve in the gifs above. He’ll be just fine.

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Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @zjgifford to let me know your thoughts, and for more of my St. Louis Cardinals analysis. Videos all courtesy of MLB.com.

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