Change Is Good

The change-up is my favorite pitch in baseball. I could probably come up with some kind of logical explanation for why I have more affection for that pitch than others, but in the end, it’s still more feeling than rational observation. I just love a good change-up.

I’m not sure MLB talent evaluators share my fondness for it, however. This afternoon, I was browsing through the Pitch Type leaderboards here on FanGraphs, and something jumped out at me. Here’s the starting pitchers who threw the highest percentage of change-ups in the majors last year.

Edinson Volquez, 31.8%
Cole Hamels, 31.5%
Johan Santana, 28.7%
James Shields, 26.3%
Jair Jurrjens, 26.2%

Besides throwing a lot of change-ups, those guys all have significant success in common. That’s a list of three all-stars and two of the breakout young pitchers of 2008. For them, quantity of change-ups was part of being an extremely good major league pitcher. Every team in baseball would gladly pencil any of these five into their rotation for 2009.

However, they also have something else in common – with the exception of Hamels, they were all deemed expendable to one degree or another at some point in their career.

Volquez worked his way up the ladder with the Texas Rangers, and while he was one of their top pitching prospects, they cashed him for Josh Hamilton when they had the chance.

Santana was famously a Rule 5 draft pick, selected by the Marlins and then traded to the Twins for Jared Camp.

Shields was a 16th round draft choice by the Rays back in 2000. Despite some quality performances in the minors, he was never considered one of their top prospects.

Jair Jurrjens was signed and developed by the Tigers, and like with Volquez, he was traded for major league talent, or at least the promise of it, in the form of Edgar Renteria.

Of the five, Hamels is the only one who was acquired at a high cost and stayed with his original franchise. The other change-up artists, among the best in the game, simply weren’t valued as highly as pitching prospects who build their resume with a dynamite breaking ball.

From guys like Josh Beckett, Kerry Wood, Scott Kazmir, Felix Hernandez, and now David Price, the pedigree for a great pitching prospect has been a high velocity fastball and a knockout curveball or slider. That’s the kind of repertoire that gets a young pitcher noticed and that teams simply don’t trade away. Those guys cost a ton to acquire, and they’re very rarely made available to other clubs.

But, it just isn’t all that uncommon for the change-up artist to develop into a better pitcher than the breaking ball guy. Right now, if the Rays had to keep either Kazmir or Shields going forward, I’m not so sure that they wouldn’t keep Shields.

As we look to the wave of future young arms reaching the majors, perhaps we should make a conscious decision to give the change-up artists a bit more due than they’ve gotten in the past?

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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15 years ago

I too am a huge fan of changeups. Watching Radke and then Sanatana all those years gave me a certain fondness for the pitch.

One thing I will point out though, is that Santana didn’t throw a changeup untill coming to the Twin’s organization. Developing that pitch is what turned him from a hard throwing lefty to the best in the game.

I wonder if some of the other pitcher’s have similar stories, as the changeup seems to be something pitcher’s develop when they don’t have the dominating slider/curve.