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Anthony DeSclafani found a breakout breaking ball

Anthony DeSclafani has been a bright spot for a young Cincinnati Reds rotation, but has he found one pitch that can take him to an elite level?

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The season is officially over. Let me rephrase that. The Cincinnati Reds' season is officially over—or at least it has been since September 1st when they were eliminated from playoff contention. Of course, the Reds aren’t done playing baseball yet. The only thing truly over is their hopes of playing postseason baseball, which have officially come to a halt. So maybe 'over' is the wrong choice of word.

Although, the Reds playoff hopes had long-since faded away much before their official elimination. I assume they lie somewhere around the single dreadlock they kept to remember Johnny Cueto (I mean, have they ever come out and said they didn’t?) and a piece taken from the smolder after one of their smokestacks caught fire (surely an omen, and what I had previously assumed was a smokestacks’ primary job) earlier this season. Things have looked bad for a while.

Just because the current state of the Reds is less than desirable, though, doesn’t mean that the Reds are without hope. Todd Frazier posted an excellent first half of the season, although he has since struggled in the 2nd half (80 wRC+). On the other side of the coin, Brandon Phillips followed his 83 wRC+ performance in the first half with a much more impressive 116 wRC+ in the second. Not to mention that first baseman/Canadian Mountie Joey Votto has played well all year round and is not getting a ton of hype due to the Reds' irrelevance.

As for the pitching staff?

Aroldis Chapman has done Aroldis Chapman-like things, and our own Ryan Romano wrote last month about Raisel Iglesias’ pitching—but how about Anthony DeSclafani?

If you recall, DeSclafani was sent from the Toronto Blue Jays as part of the blockbuster deal in the 2012-13 offseason that included Henderson AlvarezYunel EscobarAdeiny HechavarriaJake MarisnickJeff Mathis, and Justin Nicolino to to the Miami Marlins for Emilio BonifacioJohn BuckMark BuehrleJosh JohnsonJose Reyes, and cash. DeSclafani debuted with the Marlins for 33 innings in 2014, before being shipped off to Cincinnati last offseason as part of the Mat Latos trade.

This season, the New Jersey-native mostly has held his own. The 25-year old owns the highest fWAR (2.9) on the Reds staff—although a contributing factor to his team lead is the trading of Mike Leake and the aforementioned Cueto. Combined with his 3.67 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and 3.99 xFIP, DeSclafani is one of the bright spots of the struggling team—and it's worth mentioning this is his first full MLB season.

But here’s the thing, it is not his 2015 season as a whole that should give Reds fans the most hope. Normally a four start stretch wouldn’t be a great head-raiser, but DeSclafani has made some changes. It is these adjustments and, more specifically, the ever-increasing usage of his improved curveball that should have Reds fans excited to see what the righty has to offer in the future. These adjustments led to DeSclafani slicing his walk rate in half and nearly doubling his strikeout rate while posting a 2.08 ERA, 1.49 FIP, and 2.34 xFIP over his last 26 innings.

For starters, let’s take a look at where exactly DeSclafani has been throwing over these last four games compared to before:

By pitching lower in the zone, DeSclafani has been able to go from giving up a fly ball 34.9 percent of the time to a much improved 23.1 percent. In a park that is much friendlier to fly balls than most,  lowering the amount of fly balls DeSclafani gives up is probably a good thing. Not to mention that the type of contact he is giving up has begun to weaken, too. As his hard percent from his last four starts is 3.1 percent lower than before, his soft percent has risen concurrently by 8.1 percent.

I know that not every time he pitches he will pitch at home, but what I do know is that three of his last four starts have been in Cincy. That means that this location change—and the decrease in fly balls that followed— had an immediate impact in the place he likely wanted it to the most. As I said before, though, the greatest adjustment that DeSclafani has made was actually to his curveball.

The odd thing is that when you look at DeSclafani’s curveball, PITCHf/x calls it a knuckle-curve while also categorizing a separate curveball. Pitch Info, though, recognizes only one pitch and calls it a curveball. However, when I went back and watched some footage I couldn't really make a determination. For the sake of simplicity, I am just going to refer to this pitch as a curveball and not a knuckle-curve.

It shouldn’t even matter what it is called because his new and improved curveball is so vastly different from before. Check out the difference in the pitch from before his start against the Cardinals on August 27th and after (from texasleaguers.com):

Pitch Type Velocity Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement Spin Rate
Knuckle-Curve (Before 8/27) 77.6 -4.56 3.01 988
Curveball (Before 8/27) 77.4 -5.66 5.08 1,285
Curveball (8/27 and After) 80.5 -7.17 6.62 1,702

*I listed both the KC and CU data from before 8/27 to show what each were recorded to do individually

For a more visual example, here is DeSclafani’s curveball against Arizona Diamondback Aaron Hill on August 22nd:

And here is a GIF of the curveball DeSclafani has been showcasing lately, this time against Stephen Piscotty on September 12th:

It is cool to see this transformation unfold. Obviously the rookie's improved curveball, with a spin rate nearly double what is was previously, is coming in faster with more movement. What might not be so obvious is that DeSclafani did not throw this pitch in his relatively short Major League stint last season ----- even to start this season the youngster barely dabbled with it.

The first time DeScal threw the pitch in the double-digits was July 29th, but he has since done it in five of his eight starts. He's gone from the 3.7 percent of the time he threw the pitch before August 27th to now when the Reds’ righty tosses in a curveball 15.3 percent of the time. This type of learning the curveball on the job seems to finally be paying off for him, and DeSclafani is beginning to gain confidence in the pitch.

Confidence that could also be based on the new and improved curveball surrendering fewer hits. Confidence because of an opponent’s batting average of .214 as opposed to the previous .455 mark his curveball held. Confidence because of a drop off in his opponents' power (ISO) from .091 to zero. If not that, then maybe DeSclafani just likes to see people swing and miss at the pitch—because they’ve been doing a lot of that the more he throws it, too:

Although it took all year long to get it right, the curveball DeSclafani searched for has finally arrived. If the increase in his curveball usage were taken from any other off-speed pitch, the changeup would be the likely candidate. That’s because it has dropped nearly seven percent in usage in the same time frame the curveball gained. So if DeSclafani is beginning to lean towards his curveball more than his changeup we could see even more of an uptick in usage.

While it might seem like a small sample size, it appears there are some very real changes to DeSclafani’s game. It should also be mentioned that the four game stretch where he began throwing his curveball more and more wasn’t against teams with slouching offenses. The Los Angeles Dodgers (107 wRC+), Chicago Cubs (94 wRC+), Pittsburgh Pirates (98 wRC+), and St. Louis Cardinals (96 wRC+) are a tough teams with offenses at or near the top half of the National League that most pitchers would prefer not to face.

Whether he is able to keep up the success he is having with his curveball to end the year or not should definitely be something to watch going forward into next season. If the adjustments stay true, then the Reds will have gotten a very special pitcher in return for a season of Mat Latos, who was DFA’d by the Dodgers yesterday. Look this season for DeSclafani to use his curveball more and more as the year wraps up, but look next season for Anthony DeSclafani to use his curveball to break out.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.