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What to expect from John Curtiss

Impeccable control with his slider early in the count is this reliever’s modus operandi

MLB: San Diego Padres at Miami Marlins Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers bolstered their bullpen at the trade deadline by sending Payton Henry to Miami for John Curtiss. While Henry was a relatively significant piece to give up for the former Marlins’ reliever, Curtis should be worth it.

John Curtiss started his career with the Minnesota Twins organization and bounced around a bit before landing in Tampa in 2020. While there, he covered 25 innings and pitched to a 1.80 ERA. His success in Tampa was predicated on outstanding control. He posted a 25.3% strike out percentage and a 3% walk percentage in 2020 for the Rays.

The Rays ended up trading Curtiss to Miami where he continued to demonstrate fabulous command. While with the Rays he stuck out 24.8% percent of hitters that faced him while only walking just 2.5% of hitters that faced him.

Curtiss’ achilles heel is giving up hard contact. When opposing hitters put the bat on the ball, they are averaging almost a 92 mph exit velocity. Curtiss is among the worst in baseball in terms of getting hit hard, but he makes up for it by missing enough bats and staying in the zone.

MLB Percentiles John Curtiss
Baseball Savant

This is actually a bit of a concern, especially coming from a pitcher friendly ballpark in Miami to a more hitter friendly park in Milwaukee. That said, his 77th percentile barrel percentage could suggest there is late movement to either his 4-seam fastball, which he throws 48% of the time, or his slider, which he throws 50% of the time.

Or is he just getting lucky? Are opposing hitters just hitting it hard right at somebody. If he is lucky, his lucky streak is almost two seasons long. He is probably not getting lucky. The percentiles are very similar between 2021 and 2020.

MLB Percentiles John Curtiss 2020
Baseball Savant

The big key for Curtiss is the fact he turned into a strike thrower once he got to Tampa in 2020. Before that his was walking 10 plus percent of the batters he faced. Evidently he was able to do this by throwing less fastballs and more sliders for strikes.

Ben Clemens of Fangraphs pointed out the change in pitching strategy in a June 10 post.

Curtiss has used a newfangled strategy, a wave that is increasingly dominating pitching. He throws his breaking pitch for a strike now, and it’s transformed his game...

..He throws it (the slider) 7.2 mph slower than his fastball, an optimal range. He throws it at nearly 88 mph, and fast sliders with at least a bit of horizontal movement — that’s his! — do well. He throws it in the strike zone more often, and again, yep, that’s what we’re looking for...

...I don’t see much reason to think that Curtiss will suddenly lose his ability to throw strikes and turn back into a high-walk pitcher again, and as it is right now he’s a valuable reliever.

In essence, Curtiss works backwards. He gets ahead of hitters with the slider in the zone. He works up in the zone and above the zone with his 4-seam fastball. He probably gets into trouble when that fastball is not up enough. The results are some hard hit rates that are not the best. Yet he has become successful with this approach.

The likelihood is that John Curtiss is going to be a nice bullpen piece for Milwaukee. Look for him to pitch for Milwaukee much like he did for Miami and Tampa, even if his first outing as a Brewers was not the best. He might give up some hard hit balls from time to time, and that will be frustrating, but his overall arsenal should keep him out of trouble and make him a valuable piece in the Brewers’ bullpen. Plus, he has four and a half more years of control.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant