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John Curtiss is a legitimate bullpen arm

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The Rays righty is throwing harder in 2020 thanks to some mechanical adjustments

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

  1. Rays acquire little known, widely unheralded relief pitcher.
  2. Said pitcher quickly plays major role in Rays major league bullpen.

When the Rays signed John Curtiss to a minor league deal prior to the 2020 season, it was a similar story. The 27 year old had pitched in small stints in parts of the last four years, but never pitching more than nine major league games in a given season.

This year, however, Curtiss has spent a substantial amount of time in the majors, used as an opener, in high leverage, as well as for multiple innings for the Rays. Of course he’s getting this long look thanks to the Rays losing pretty much all of their opening day bullpen to injury, but Curtiss has clearly grabbed that opportunity and shown some real promise.

As of this writing he boasts a 1.72 ERA in 15.2 innings of work. While the rest of his numbers — such as his 3.16 FIP/3.25 xFIP and his 26.7% strikeout rate — are good but not great, that alone doesn’t raise too many alarms.

So what’s changed?

How does a pitcher with an ERA above 7.00 in the minors in 2019 so quickly become a major contributor to a major league bullpen, on the best team in the American League no less? How does a pitcher who has struggled to throw strikes his entire professional career to having one of the best walk rates (3.3%) in baseball?

Let’s start with his fastball velocity

Curtiss was never the type of pitcher to light up the radar gun, but in 2016-18, his average fastball velocity was at or above 94 MPH. In 2019, in what I would say was just an absolute mechanical mess, his fastball velocity dipped to 92.

Here in 2020, it’s back up to 94. Let’s consider why!

Mechanical adjustments

If we look at some side by side video from 19 and 20, we can see where it’s coming from. On the left, a 96 MPH fastball from ‘20. On the right, a 92 MPH fastball from ‘19:

Some changes are easier to spot, others are more subtle.

Before we get too deep into the video, a few disclaimers:

  1. Curtiss only pitched one game in 2019, and unfortunately, it was not with the lovely dead center view that we who are used to at Tropicana Field and take for granted,
  2. With that said, the closest thing I could find in 2020 from a camera angle standpoint was from his outing against the Buffalo Toronto Blue Jays.

Beginning with his initial lift phase, notice that Curtiss starts his hands lower, and goes into a more traditional leg lift. Contrary to last year, where he lifts and drives in one motion.

As a result, he does a much better job engaging his back leg, as evidenced by the lower crouch. When it comes to pitching mechanics, the back leg, or ‘drive leg’ is the foundation. Without properly engaging the drive leg, it is difficult for everything else to fall in line.

Curtiss’s better drive also helps him build, or ‘load,’ linear energy toward his target, which is shown by him keeping his foot flush with the rubber longer. In ‘19, his heel comes up early, which also causes his front foot to open earlier as well.

Here is a still of his back leg drive with lines drawn to show the striking difference between the two deliveries.

Getting into front foot strike, what we want to see during this phase is the hips opening first, the shoulders next, and the arm last, almost like a whip. In pitching, this is referred to as hip to shoulder separation.

This when energy is transferred from the drive leg, up through the body and onto the ball, also known as the kinetic chain. Curtiss gets better hip to shoulder separation as a result of his stronger drive.

At first glance, these videos do not look synced up, but they are. While the upper body action in each video is a little off, the front foot strikes are actually the same.

In 2019, you could make out the number on the back of Curtiss’s jersey, meaning his shoulders were opening up a little early — the result of him not properly engaging his drive leg. In 2020, you can see the front of his jersey at the same point.

When a pitcher properly engages his drive leg, they are better able to maximize hip to shoulder separation. Here is a better view to illustrate.

From the front view, it is much easier to see. Immediately after Curtiss’s front foot lands, we see his belt buckle, followed by the logo on his jersey, followed by ball release.

Conclusion

John Curtiss has gone from a pitcher who was struggling to cut it in the majors to one of the more consistent bullpen pieces on a team in a pennant race. Thanks to some mechanical adjustments, he has proven himself to be a bona fide major league pitcher.

It’s hard to say how long Curtiss’s high level of production will continue. For now, his improved velocity and his newfound ability to throw lots of strikes have made him an integral part of the Rays bullpen.