A few weeks ago, I went to a weekend long junior college baseball tournament that scouts and coaches of MLB teams and 4 year colleges use to scout players. One college scout lamented at what he perceived as what he saw as a loss of changeups in baseball. “Give me something that looks like a fastball, but is at a different speed with movement.” he said. I won’t pretend to be able to compare era’s, but it seems that, at least in the Majors, the state of changeups in baseball is at all time high (he has a point, you see a lot of curves and sliders instead of change’s in college, at least in my anecdotal experience).
Of course, you have King Felix’ change that averages nearly 90 MPH that can absolutely take over a game (ask the Rays about that). Fernando Rodney used a combination of a plus fastball and devastating change to have perhaps the most efficient relief year in the history of baseball. In watching what has been an exciting division round, we have been reminded that this really is a great age for the supposed lost art of the changeup. So in no particular order, here are some of the changeups we have seen so far in the playoffs.
C.C. Sabathia’s best pitch is his slider, along with what is usually a good fastball (the velocity was down a little bit against the Orioles, especially in the early innings of game 5, but it got better as the game went along). However, he also features a very good change. In several key spots, he threw the change to get swings and misses. Two times quickly come to mind. He got behind 1-0 to Mark Reynolds after allowing the first two runners on base in the 8th. He then threw a change that made the count 1-1 and he would get a strikeout later in the at-bat.With two outs, C.C. threw a change to J.J. Hardy in a 1-1 count to get a swinging strike to the make the count 1-2 so he could end the at-bat by getting a ground-ball off of his fastball.
This year, Sabathia threw his changeup 13 % of the time at an average of 86.57 MPH. If this chart is correct, he doesn’t ever throw changeups to left-handed hitters and only throws it when he has the platoon advantage. He also throws it the most when the batter is ahead. When he needs a strike against a right-handed hitter, this is the pitch he likes to throw.
Sabathia gets more swings on his change that he does with either his fastball or his slider, and he also gets more ground-balls with it than he does on his other 3 pitches, even his sinker (and it has the lowest line drive and homer rate as well). Despite pitching in Yankee Stadium, his ISO on changeups (and remember, he only throws it when does not have the platoon advantage) is .083. Here is the complete list of qualified MLB hitters with an ISO under .083 in 2012: Rafael Furcal, Jamey Carroll, and Ben Revere.
When people think of Justin Verlander, they usually think, and for good reason, of the fastball. When someone throws 95-100 MPH for 100+ pitches, that is obviously the first thing you notice. The 2nd pitch people think of is the curveball.
However, he was able to shut down the Athletics with his changeup. He threw 25 changeups, 18 of them for strikes. 18 of those strikes were not put in play, and 6 of them were swings and misses.
What is key for all pitchers that have good changeups is a consistent arm speed and delivery/release point. If you slow down your arm speed when you throw a change, then it makes it obvious that you are throwing a change and the hitter picks up on it. while you can’t really quantify arm speed with Pitch F/X, you can look at release point. Look at the consistency Justin Verlander has in his release point. You can’t tell what pitch he is throwing by how he releases the ball.
Compare that to the Royals’ Luke Hochevar, a pitcher with good fastball velocity that has really struggled in the Majors and has never put it together or been worth the first overall pick (and 3.5 million dollar signing bonus) the Royals used on him. Hochevar really struggles to have a consistent release point on all his pitches:
Miguel Gonzalez went from the Mexican League to the Orioles starting playoff rotation. The right-hander has an average to below average fastball at 92.2 MPH, but has been successful (at least this season) never the less. A lot of this hinges on his split/change that he throws 14 % of the time. In his playoff start, he didn’t have great control over it, but the movement did keep a struggling Yankee lineup off balance.
Here is the list of changes (starting pitchers with a minimum of 50 thrown) that have a higher whiff/swing ratio than Miguel Gonzalez’ this year: Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Locke, Cole Hamels, Erasmo Ramirez, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Jaime Garcia (whom I could add to this post if I wanted to make this post longer), Corey Kluber, and Randy Wells.
The A’s Jarrod Parker lost both of his starts to Justin Verlander, but was impressive nonetheless and showed off a great changeup throughout the season (including being in the above list). He gets nearly 12 MPH difference between the fastball and change (although speed differential is probably overrated). In horizontal movement, his change breaks like James Shields and Felipe Paulino, two pitchers with quite a bit of success in the Majors and good changeups. No matter what handed the batter, Parker loves to finish off batters with his changeup:
He doesn’t have a big strikeout percentage (18.6), but has clearly gotten the job done nevertheless, as hitters have a measly .205 SLG on his changeup.
Max Scherzer is another Tigers’ pitcher who is known for his fastball and has become one of the elite strikeout pitchers in the game. He is a basic 3 pitch pitcher, with a fastball, slider, and of course, a changeup. Like Verlander, he made the Athletics look awful on the changeup (which is something the Athletics have had problems with this season). Scherzer is a pitcher that despite the great stuff, likes to keep hitters guessing, not really having a set pattern in when he threw his pitches (other than being relatively fastball heavy). Like most of the pitchers above, the change is his best ground-ball pitch, but in Scherzer’s case, it is laughably so, with a 239.06 GB/FB %. He gets tremendous movement on his pitches both horizontally and vertically, looking similar to many of the best pitchers in the game:
His insane release point also helps, as he gets somewhat of a weird angle on his pitches, which also gives him pretty big platoon splits:
Jason Hammel of the Baltimore Orioles also a good looking change. It is a changeup, but it has some really sharp break like most good changeups. Unlike most of the other pitchers listed, the changeup is not his best pitch for whiffs or ground-balls. It is also something he doesn’t throw in the zone a lot, with the lowest called strike percentage of all his pitches. Strangely, it is a pitch that has gotten harder as his career has gone by, creeping up towards 90 MPH:
Perhaps because of this (or perhaps because he is no longer in the disaster that is Coors Field), his changeup has went from a pitch that has been hit hard to a pitch that is an above average pitch. The pitch is also moving more vertically, which helps:
These aren’t the only good changeups we have seen so far. Tyler Clippard’s 81 MPH change deserves some love, as it has only gotten better as his career has gone along. Matt Cain’s is particularly good at getting swings and his teammate Tim Lincecum pitched a key relief appearance using basically his slider and change thanks to fastball velocity that has apparently gone the way of Roanoke. There are others of course. It is a good time to be a changeup in the Majors.