Ben Brown Baffling Batters Behind Baseball’s Best Bender

Though it’s not unheard of, you don’t often see a starter who can get away with a two-pitch repertoire. Justin Steele built his Cy Young candidacy on throwing almost exclusively fastballs and sliders, but that’s a little deceiving because his cut-ride fastball is really two pitches all on its own. He’s also working to incorporate more changeups and curveballs this season, a development that is worth monitoring. Even more interesting is how his rotation-mate is becoming one of the nastiest pitchers in the game.

Wait, I suppose we could apply that to any number of Cubs starters, including Shōta Imanaga and Javier Assad. As the alliterative title indicates, however, we’re going to focus on a guy who wasn’t supposed to be starting for the Cubs in the first place.

Ben Brown was promoted to fill in for Steele following the lefty’s Opening Day injury and has since made 13 appearances with just six starts as a swingman. Brown has seemingly gotten better each time out, culminating in a masterful performance Tuesday night that saw him toss seven no-hit innings against the Brewers to help stop the Cubs’ losing streak. Between his recent performance and Kyle Hendricks‘ move to the bullpen, Brown shouldn’t be leaving the starting five anytime soon.

The big righty now has a 2.72 ERA and a 2.42 FIP with 55 strikeouts and 17 walks over 46.1 innings. But take out that disastrous debut in which he was forced to wear it against the Rangers, Brown has a 1.61 ERA with a 2.01 FIP and 54 strikeouts to 15 walks in 44.2 innings. He’s also given up just one homer out of 27 hits allowed in that time.

With all due respect to the 97 mph four-seam that can get arm-side run like a two-seam, it’s the curveball that’s paving the way for Brown’s success. According to Statcast, its run value of nine is easily the best in baseball. No other pitcher has more than five at this point and two of the four who have accumulated that many have thrown far more of them than Brown. To that end, the only pitchers putting up better than Brown’s 3.3 RV per 100 pitches have thrown at least 105 fewer curveballs.

The Brewers were victimized by Brown’s spike curve again and again as he threw a season-high 32 of them, 23 of which to left-handed batters. That led to six strikeouts on the breaking ball and contributed to four others because of how it set up his fastball when he got ahead in counts. Hitters expecting spin with two strikes were frozen by the heater and could do nothing but turn around and sulk back to the dugout.

They have no choice but to respect the hook because Brown’s 50.4% whiff rate on the season is the best in baseball among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 80 curveballs. So how’s he doing it? We’ve looked at this a little in the past and Marquee’s Lance Brozdowski has opined on Brown’s stuff at length, then there’s this thread from Adam Naliwajko of Tread Athletics.

This is too much to unpack for just this one article, so let’s just stick with the idea that a “death ball” tends to be more slurvy and doesn’t move like a traditional curve. Because Brown is a pronator who throws his curve with a spike grip, it gets a lot more sidespin than topspin and does so at an average velocity of 87 mph that sits way above league average. The combination of those factors is lethal.

“I throw the crap out of it,” Brown explained to Brozdowski. “When I don’t throw it hard, it stinks. So if I throw it as hard as I can with conviction, odds are it’s gonna have a better chance of being in the zone.”

It’s a simple cue that has served him well and should continue to do so for a long time. Hitters will really be in trouble if Brown can ever figure out a changeup, something he spoke about in that article linked above. For now, though, he’s doing just fine with a big fastball and the best bender in the business.

Back to top button