Baseball’s New Approach to the Changeup

Baseball can be slow to change. We’ve had this idea for decades that certain pitch types have platoon splits, and that you should avoid them in certain situations because of it. Righties, don’t throw sliders to lefties! It’s Baseball 101.

Think of the changeup, too. “Does he have a changeup?” or some variation on the theme is the first question uttered of any prospect on the way up. It’s shorthand for “can he be a starter?” because we think of changeups as weapons against the opposite hand. A righty will need one to get lefties out and turn the lineup over, back to the other righties, who will be dispatched using breaking balls.

As with all conventional wisdom, this notion of handedness and pitch types should be rife for manipulation. Say you could use your changeup effectively against same-handed hitters, for example. You could have a fastball/changeup starter that was equally effective against both hands, despite the history of platoon splits on the pitch.

To the innovators go the spoils. And we’re starting to see some innovators.

Zack Greinke told me that the thing he learned about his changeup from Felix Hernandez was to throw it inside to righties. Anthony DeSclafani told me he was doing the same and that his pitching coach was a big proponent of the idea team-wide. Jon Lester thought he might throw some to lefties inside this year.

The broadcast team for the Mets noticed it this weekend, calling it a league-wide trend. It’s maybe not super stark, but it does look like there are more split-fingers and changeups being thrown from righties to righties over the last few years.

RightyvRightyChangeups

Last year, righties threw changeups 6.50% of the time to right-handed batters. That’s a peak in the PITCHf/x era, over 6.36% in 2010. So, by rote volume, there might be a trend here.

But “how” the changeup is being used from righties to righties is evolving, too. Since the inside changeup from a righty to a righty is still relatively rare, hitters see the location and think fastball. They gear up for the hard stuff, and then the changeup pulls the string, and they whiff. That’s what DeSclafani was hoping for, anyway.

The league is starting to change up the approach to the changeup. Take a look at these two heat maps, coaxed lovingly from these fingers with the help of the excellent Sean Dolinar. Both are from the catcher’s perpective. Look closely at low and inside: the inside corner is changing colors. Be sure to change the tab from 2008-2009 to 2014-2015 to see the contrast.

If you watch the inside corner as you flip the tabs, you’ll see the blob move down towards it. So our pitchers are seeing something that other pitchers are seeing.

Now the obvious question is whether the approach is effective. The answer appears to be “yes.”

Blame the zero/zero extremists for all the white space at the bottom, but the trend is clear either way. The last three years have brought the highest swinging-strike and ground-ball rates on changeups from righties against righties in the PITCHf/x era. Right-handers are getting better at using their changeups against right-handers.

Is this specifically because of the low-and-inside changeup? That part is harder to tease out, for a few reasons. Listen to Paul Konerko extoll the virtues of the inside changeup from a righty, and you’ll see that the benefit of the strategy is multifaceted and complicated.

“As a right-hander, you’re going to see a lot of sinkers hard and in and sliders diving away. That’s why 90% of right-handers look out over the plate. I’m a pull hitter that hit just enough balls away to buy myself more balls in. So I’d look for changeups and splitters inside, and if I saw a guy who could do that, I’d raise an eyebrow. That’s risen in the last few years because those changeups give you whiffs, jam shots, and foul balls. Why eliminate a pitch for the hitter? Why let a righty think, he’ll never throw me a changeup?”

So you can see why the “why” is difficult to pick apart. Righties may be having more trouble with changeups from righties just because the pitcher is doing something they don’t expect. Or because it makes the batter cover another part of the plate. Or because it adds a pitch type that the righty has to think about.

In any case, we know it’s happening. Righties are throwing more changeups inside to righties. And it’s working.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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caudata
Member
caudata

Hasn’t the strike zone changed since 08-09? If so, how much of the drop in pitch location is explained by pitchers exploiting the drop in the bottom of the zone? And to what degree does the expansion in the strike zone correlate to the increase in swstr% (exempting the small samply of 2016 so far)?

caudata
Member
caudata

Judging by this:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/the-strike-zone-expansion-is-out-of-control/

Zone expansion probably explains alot of the drop in location, esp given the size of the zone below 21″ has gone from zero to nearly 50 square inches in 2014.

It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t also drive a significant portion of the increase in SWSTR.

Agree with Konerko though. Why take away a pitch? Why limit yourself against an opponent?