Cecil Gives Credit To Clemens For Improved Curve
Fastball velocity has played a big part in left-hander Brett Cecil's revival as a big-league pitcher. But it's not the lone ingredient that has helped the Blue Jays reliever go from a borderline roster candidate in spring to a first-time All-Star in July. Cecil's faster heater, which has allowed him to blow smoke past hitters and get away with more mistakes within the strike zone than in years past, has been drawing the attention of many onlookers, but his repertoire goes deeper than a fastball that now sits at a career-high 93 mph.
The 27-year-old's days as a starter enabled him to take a full arsenal with him to the bullpen, and be more than just a one or two-trick pony, like many relievers across the game.
"It definitely helps," Cecil said during an interview just prior to the All-Star break.
Cecil throws a fastball, both a two-seamer and a four-seam, a cutter, changeup, and a curveball, which has developed into his out-pitch. The curveball, which Cecil is throwing more than ever before, is his prime swing-and-miss pitch, and an offering he believes he got a better feel for after some instruction from one of the game's all-time greatest pitchers.
In 2012, Cecil was supposed to break camp as a member of Toronto's rotation but a disappointing spring, highlighted by a drop in velocity, foiled those plans.
Instead, Cecil was optioned to Double-A New Hampshire and began the season in the minor leagues, which, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise.
The Maryland native became teammates with Koby Clemens, a utility player whom the Blue Jays signed to a minor-league deal in February 2012, and the son of Roger Clemens.
One day during the season, the elder Clemens showed up to the park and threw batting practice to a group of New Hampshire hitters. Cecil, who was set to throw a bullpen session that day and was well aware of Clemens' presence on the field, approached pitching coach Tom Signore with an idea.
"I asked if he would go over and ask Clemens if he could watch my bullpen, and he came over," Cecil said.
Clemens not only obliged, but he was quick to point out something he saw in Cecil's delivery when he threw his curveball that was in need of some correcting. The seven-time Cy Young winner noticed that Cecil was opening up his front side too much, which in effect was preventing him from spinning the pitch with maximum authority. It was too "loopy," Cecil said, but Clemens had a plan.
"He basically told me to close my front shoulder off a little bit and drive my front side down. And that's kind of really when it started to get sharper," Cecil said.
Now, after his encounter with Clemens, Cecil says his curve has "good, sharp break to it."
"It's the best I have ever been throwing it," he said.
He's right. Cecil said he didn't really need a great curveball when he was working as a starter because of how good his changeup was. By not frequently incorporating his hook into his arsenal, though, the pitch was never as effective as he wanted it to be.
Cecil throws what's called a spike curveball, a grip which mimics a knuckle curve, and something he went back to after signing with the Blue Jays.
In college, at the University of Maryland where he worked as a reliever and closed, Cecil abandoned the spike grip because, "it did exactly that -- spike in the ground, spike in the ground," he said.
"Then when I got to pro ball, I don't know what made me change, but I went back to the spike and I was able to keep it up in the strike zone and not literally spike it.".
But Cecil said that not spiking it when he didn't want to was only half the battle.
Years later it appears the lefty has finally put everything else together and, for the first time in his career, he can consistently "throw my curveball for strikes when I want, and put it in the dirt when I want."
Cecil gets Pedro Ciriaco chasing a curveball in the dirt for an inning-ending strikeout.
That combination has helped him amass major strikeout numbers during the first half of the season. Cecil has fanned 30 percent of the batters he has faced this year, easily a career-high mark. His whiff rate on the pitch, 20 percent, and usage, 35.19 percent, are also career highs. Not one reliever in baseball has thrown their curveball more than Cecil, according to Baseballprospectus.com. He has punched out 37 hitters in 62 at-bats ending in the pitch, attacking both righties and lefties with it at an equal amount, and the results are generally the same.
Cecil's putaway rate -- the amount of two-strike plate appearances ending in a strikeout -- of 41.67 percent off his curveball is only surpassed by Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel among all big-league relievers. Kimbrel throws the hardest curve in baseball at 86 mph.
One thing that gets lost in the shuffle regarding the weighted-ball program that Cecil used this offseason to, in part, help him gain velocity, is that it doesn't strictly impact his fastball. He throws everything harder now, including his curveball. Cecil spins it better, and it's coming in more than two mph harder than at any point in his career.
In 2009, it averaged 80 mph, and then 77-79 from 2010-12, respectively. This season, it's coming in just a shade under 83 mph, which is among the fastest in baseball. The list of pitchers who throw their curveball 82-plus is not a long one. Of the 364 pitchers who have thrown a curveball this season, only 18 of them average 82 mph or faster.
"With the weighted-ball program, it has made it harder with the sharpness," Cecil said. "It has been a good pitch for me."
Fangraphs.com's pitch values, which attempts to determine what a pitcher's best pitch is, has Cecil's curve as one of the best in baseball. Not bad, considering he barely threw it as a starter, when he favored a slider as his go-to breaking ball.
The evolution of his curveball all stems back to that one day Cecil was in a place where he didn't want to be -- the minor leagues. If the Blue Jays didn't sign Koby Clemens, Cecil wouldn't have had the opportunity to work with his dad.
"I was fortunate enough to have Roger Clemens there," Cecil said.
And so were the Blue Jays.