Last night, Dallas Braden pitched his first game of the season, and first start after missing half of last year. It was more than encouraging as last year’s Opening Day starter struck out ten Mariners while walking just one and giving up just four hits over seven innings. Those ten strikeouts are a career best (his previous high was seven). Last year Braden was successful based on an unsustainable sub-5% HR/FB, so to be successful this year he is going to need to strike guys out like he did yesterday and in his 117 innings at Triple-A in 2007 and 2008.
Braden is an interesting pitcher; the lefty throws an 87 MPH fastball and along with it the slowest changeup in baseball. Last year, it averaged 72 mph. By comparison, Barry Zito’s was 73.6, and no other starting pitcher had one slower than 78 mph. That separation of 15 mph is also one of the greatest between a fastball and changeup. And it works, as the pitch was worth almost two runs above average per 100 in 2009 and 2008, and he throws it often — 21% of the time last year.
Last night he threw it even more often, throwing 34 changeups out of his 91 pitches, and 32 changeups out of his 71 pitches to RHBs. It did not disappoint, inducing 12 of his 16 swinging strikes. It will be interesting to see whether he continues to use the change more often this season, as it is his best pitch.
To get a feeling for just how much slower his change is I plotted the pitches in Braden’s three-pitch strikeout of Milton Bradley in the first. He started off with a two-seam fastball (blue) for a swinging strike, then a four-seam fastball (green) up-and-in fouled off, and finally the changeup (yellow) down-and-away for a swinging strike three. I put a little dot every 0.075 seconds. The horizontal and vertical axis are not to scale, with the height exaggerated relative to the length.
By the time the change reaches the plate it is almost tenth of a second behind his two fastballs.