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Sneaky Elite: Jimmy Lambert

The White Sox righthander sports an elite curve that tops league leaderboards

The 2023 season has thrown us all a curve, but Jimmy Lambert is leaning into his.
| Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The “Sneaky Elite” series here at South Side Sox focuses on highlighting relatively unheralded White Sox players who have facets of their game that set them apart from some of the best names in baseball. In part one of this series, we focused on Gregory Santos’ elite ability to limit “barrels” due to the incredible movement and velocity on his sinker/slider combination.

Today, we’ll take a look at Jimmy Lambert’s uniquely devastating curve.

White Sox reliever Jimmy Lambert has been described as everything but “elite” in his professional career. After going undrafted out of San Dimas High School (Bill & Ted's alma mater) despite posting solid numbers, the California-born righthander signed up to play baseball for the Division 1 Fresno State Bulldogs in 2013. Through his freshman and sophomore campaigns at Fresno, Lambert pitched to a gaudy 5.61 ERA over 131 2⁄3 combined innings in Fresno’s cardinal red and blue uniform. In 2016, Lambert’s junior year with the Bulldogs, he enjoyed a breakout campaign, pitching to a 2.65 ERA in conference play while tallying eight wins and taking home co-Mountain West Pitcher of the Year honors with eventual Minnesota Twins rival, Griffin Jax.

Due to his impressive third-year performance in Fresno, the Chicago White Sox drafted Lambert with their fifth round pick (No. 146 overall) in 2016. Lambert rifled through the White Sox minor league system, having reached Double-A only two years after he was drafted. In 2019, he was added to the White Sox 40-man roster, and by 2020, he’d thrown his first pitch in the major leagues. Unfortunately for the young righthander, Tommy John surgery would stifle his ascent and limit him to just two appearances in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Post-recovery, Lambert made four appearances (three starts) for the White Sox in 2021, but delivered his worst marks since his freshman year at Fresno in that small sample.

In 2022, a fully-healthy Lambert provided valuable late-inning relief work for a decimated White Sox bullpen that was short on proven arms at the major-league level. Naturally, here is where we begin our dive into the metrics that define the elite aspect of Lambert’s game: his curve.

2022 Curveball Leaderboard by Vertical Movement
Baseball Savant

The 2022 iteration of Lambert’s curve dropped nearly eight full inches more than a standard curveball thrown at its usual velocity would. That figure was good for fifth out of 236 qualified hook-throwers in the majors in 2022. Of the pitchers who comprised the Top 10 spots by that metric, Lambert’s curve displayed the second-most vertical movement regardless of speed, at 65.4 inches of drop — or a full 5 1⁄2 feet.

To put that amount of drop into perspective, we’ll use a desecrated Baseball Prospectus Universal Strike Zone.

A rough visualization of Lambert’s 65.4 inch curveball.
South Side Sox via Baseball Prospectus

Jimmy Lambert’s curve breaks nearly three times the total height of Baseball Prospectus’ Universal Strike Zone of 25.79 inches.

Put another way, Lambert’s yakker has a full Betty White of vertical drop.

May she rest in peace.

Elite break is all well and good, but how well does it translate into tangible results?

Well, Lambert’s performance in 2022 saw him in the Top 10% of the league in expected opponent batting average, expected opponent slugging, and actual opponent barrel rate. Put in lay terms, almost nobody could square Jimmy up in 2022.

Jimmy Lambert’s Baseball Savant percentile rankings
Baseball Savant

Now that we’ve covered Jimmy’s dominant 2022 performance, let’s address the 6.29 ERA elephant in the room: his numbers so far in 2023.

Lambert has been bad this year. Across 24 1⁄3 innings with the big-league club, he’s allowed 29 hits, walked 14, coughed up seven longballs, and pitched to a FIP that’s even worse than his actual ERA, at 6.56. This disastrous performance can be attributed to two factors; a career-high walk rate of more than 12 %, and a 4-seam fastball that’s catching the heart of the plate with disconcerting regularity.

Jimmy Lambert fastball location heat map
Baseball Savant

The South Side’s young hurler is getting behind in the count, tossing fastballs to try to climb back into it — and those fastballs are getting absolutely clobbered as a result. What of his elite curve? How has it fared in 2023?

Unsurprisingly, it’s been his best pitch by run value, and is breaking better than it ever has.

Lambert’s run value by pitch, 2023
Baseball Savant
Lambert’s pitch movement in 2022 and 2023
Baseball Savant

Despite his curve being his best offering, Lambert goes to it only 13% of the time. He uses it primarily as a put-away pitch when he’s ahead in the count, which hasn’t been often this year. When Lambert decides to throw the curve, batters only manage a miniscule .154 average against it while whiffing on the pitch an insane 40% of the time. This puts Lambert’s curve in the same territory as Milwaukee Brewers closer Devin Williams’ devastating “airbender” changeup, which is arguably the best pitch in baseball. While some might argue that Lambert’s curveball success can be attributed to its primary use as a put-away pitch, your author submits that the issue with Lambert’s game so far in 2023 is that he’s not throwing it enough.

After all, this year Lambert’s Uncle Charlie ranks sixth in a pool of 216 qualified pitchers in terms of total movement and SECOND in movement vs. average curves thrown at his typical velocity.

Whether or not Jimmy Lambert decides to throw his curve more often, there’s no question that the pitch is Sneaky Elite.

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