Aroldis Chapman’s Taking a Break From His Changeup

The most unfair thing to imagine in baseball is Aroldis Chapman learning a knuckleball. The next-most unfair thing to imagine in baseball is Aroldis Chapman learning a changeup. This year Aroldis Chapman got around to learning a changeup, and things got weird. When we last checked in on June 19, batters had attempted 14 swings against the change, and not a single one of those swings had made any kind of contact. Later that day, Pirates batters attempted two more swings against the change, and both of them whiffed. So, at one point this year, through 16 swings, Chapman’s changeup had a contact rate of 0.0%. That’s a low rate that put Chapman’s change among the league leaders.

I thought it would make sense to check back in, now that more than a month has passed. I’m fascinated to no end by the idea of Chapman throwing an offspeed pitch, but sadly, it would appear that Chapman and the changeup are on a bit of a break. Not that it isn’t understandable. And not that Chapman needs a changeup to be a good reliever. He really, really doesn’t. I can’t emphasize this enough. Chapman in whatever form is amazing. It’s just that the most hilarious pitch in baseball is taking a nap.

The changeup no longer has a contact rate allowed of 0.0%. Today it stands at 5.6%, with one contact swing out of 18 attempts. Back on June 26, Adam Duvall of the Giants put a changeup in play, with certain authority.

ChapmanCHContact

That’s not why the pitch has gone missing. But, it’s presumably related to why, and the pitch has gone missing. We can break Chapman’s season into little segments:

  • Segment 1: 4 appearances, 87 pitches, 0% changeups
  • Segment 2: 14 appearances, 233 pitches, 19% changeups
  • Segment 3: 13 appearances, 216 pitches, 5% changeups

A sub-segment of Segment 3 — let’s call it Segment 3b — covers Chapman’s last six appearances. He’s thrown 96 pitches and two changeups, not counting the five non-changeups he threw in the All-Star Game. It’s not Chapman’s slider rate that’s wavered. All year long, he’s thrown roughly one slider for every four pitches. But, in Segment 1, Chapman threw 75% fastballs. In Segment 2, 55% fastballs. In Segment 3, 69% fastballs. The changeup isn’t completely dead, but it’s not a feature pitch, like it was for about a month earlier on.

Why? Well, I was afraid of this. Here’s a recent example changeup:

ChapmanCHLow

Maybe that doesn’t tell you very much. In which case, here are all of Chapman’s changeups:

chapmanchangeups

He’s thrown 22% of his changeups in the strike zone. Now, that’s not unusual — that’s a similar rate to Felix Hernandez. But, to stretch the comparison, 62% of Felix’s changeups have been strikes. For Chapman, that rate is 41%, because Felix has good changeup command and Chapman does not. It’s one thing to throw a changeup out of the zone, but Chapman’s thrown several of them really out of the zone. He’s missed high, he’s missed in the middle, and he’s missed low. Chapman’s changeup has a lot of margin of error because it’s so unfairly different from his fastball, so even a changeup down the middle isn’t so bad, but this isn’t a pitch Chapman can spot. And, why throw balls if you don’t need to? If you can live fastball/slider, why not live fastball/slider?

During Segment 2, Chapman struck out 57% of his batters faced. During Segment 3, he’s struck out 53% of his batters faced. During Segment 3b, covering six appearances, he’s struck out 70% of his batters faced, or 14 out of 20. That’s while throwing just two changeups. See, Chapman has this thing he can do:

ChapmanFALooking

He can throw 103 miles per hour, with better location than he should be allowed to have.

Chapman hasn’t really been better since putting the changeup in his back pocket. But he hasn’t been worse, either, and given that he’s throwing harder than he ever has, there’s just so little incentive to put in the work to make the changeup a more consistent weapon. He doesn’t need it to do his job, so why feature it if batters can’t touch the two pitches he’s thrown for years? It would help him, of course, to learn a better changeup if he ever wants to be a starting pitcher, but that’s not going to be something the catcher is thinking about during a 2014 save opportunity. Long-term interests go out the window when you’re a team trying to make the postseason, and Chapman is an absolute freak because of his fastball velocity.

And it’s worth noting that he might’ve improved his command. Relative to last year, his average fastball has been three inches higher in 2014, and Chapman wants the fastball up in the zone. After throwing 65% of fastballs at mid-thigh or higher before, this year he’s at 77%. Also, Chapman’s using his slider differently. Previously, he threw 52% of his sliders over the glove-side third of the plate, or beyond. This year, he’s at 73%, so those sliders are more outside against lefties and more inside against righties. Chapman has changed things up a bit, and when you’re dealing with a higher fastball than ever, and a harder fastball than ever, and a better-located slider down, adding a changeup barely pushes the needle because what the hell are you supposed to do against even just the first two pitches? A good changeup would make the package maybe literally unhittable, but an inconsistent changeup is just about unnecessary.

So, here’s the unsurprising thing: Aroldis Chapman’s changeup is a work in progress. The movement is fine, and the speed differential is fine, but it isn’t a pitch he can locate very well. If he could, he’d be the most dominant pitcher in baseball, but as is, he’s still maybe the most dominant pitcher in baseball, and there just isn’t much reason for him to work hard on improving his changeup in games at the moment. Bullpens? Fine. Next spring training? Fine. But, batters couldn’t hit Chapman a year ago. Right now, it makes sense for him to mix one in every so often just to give hitters a different look, and to keep it in their heads. But, maybe Chapman’s optimal changeup rate is about 4 – 5%. One every two games or so. It’d be higher if the pitch were better, but it’s not and it doesn’t need to be. Every player in baseball has room for improvement, but if Chapman’s intention is to throw mostly fastballs and sliders down the stretch, I think that’s forgivable. After all, before he was Aroldis Chapman with a changeup, he was Aroldis Chapman.

We hoped you liked reading Aroldis Chapman’s Taking a Break From His Changeup by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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tz
Guest
tz

The man has thrown a 94-mph changeup.

Imagine if he threw 90% changeups at around 94mph, and then to change speeds, he just plops in a 102-105mph fastball 10% of the time.

Still can’t get my head around this.

AK7007
Member
AK7007

I’m thinking something like ? fastballs, ? “change up”, ΒΌ slider = not possible to hit ever in a million years.

atoms
Guest
atoms

lol, the 103 mph fastball would be the true change-of-pace pitch then.

I think if the 90-94 mph pitch were his bread and butter though, he wouldn’t be so special. Unless it had crazy movement or something, that’s just a normal fastball.

tz
Guest
tz

I agree. My hypothetical was just that it would be so weird to face an apparently mortal pitcher throwing what you think are fastballs, but then seeing that his real fastball is well over 100mph.

DeQuarium Lumpkin
Guest
DeQuarium Lumpkin

Sean Doolittle makes his living with great command of a straight 94 mph fastball, so it can be done.

a eskpert
Guest
a eskpert

Aroldis Chapman =/= Great command.