Grading the Pitches: 2016 AL Starters’ Changeups

Over the last week or so in this space, 2016 ERA-qualifying starting pitchers’ contact-management abilities were assessed on a pitch-specific basis. (Here’s the AL post and here’s the NL one.) While 2017 sample sizes remain too small for much meaningful analysis, let’s take our 2016 pitch-specific analysis one step further.

Beginning today, we’ll couple bat-missing ability with contact management so that we can more fully evaluate the effectiveness of qualifying starters’ individual offerings. Let’s start off with changeups, with today’s focus on the American League.

I figured it might be a bit boring and predictable to use a standard 20-80 scouting scale. Instead, we’ll treat it like a classroom, assigning letter grades. Contact management and bat-missing were weighted equally, with league-average performance receiving a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – AL Qualifiers’ Changeups
Keuchel 62 20.9% A 9.7%
Price 66 22.1% A 22.2%
Sabathia 53 16.9% B+ 11.0%
Ventura 66 15.4% B+ 18.3%
Duffy 67 19.6% B+ 17.5%
Estrada 70 21.5% B+ 29.6%
Sale 66 12.2% B 18.8%
Weaver, Jr. 66 9.4% B 29.3%
Bauer 69 10.7% B 12.1%
Porcello 76 10.9% B 13.5%
Volquez 79 16.5% B 22.2%
Archer 83 13.0% B 11.4%
Kennedy 88 14.2% B 11.7%
Perez, M. 93 16.6% B 16.7%
Hamels 97 22.2% B 18.1%
Tomlin 67 5.8% C+ 7.5%
Sanchez, Aa. 79 9.6% C+ 9.2%
Pineda 84 7.9% C+ 8.5%
Santiago 86 8.4% C+ 21.1%
Tillman 87 12.5% C+ 16.0%
Fiers 105 15.2% C+ 19.2%
Miley 108 13.1% C+ 17.9%
Santana, E. 111 7.3% C 7.8%
Verlander 122 11.4% C 11.0%
Fister 126 8.7% D+ 6.5%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good, above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting some hairs very tightly in some cases.

Some general notes about the changeup as a pitch. It’s pretty darned effective. The MLB average swing-and-miss rate on changeups thrown by ERA qualifiers was an impressive 15.3%. It was also the foremost contact management pitch among qualifiers in both leagues. AL qualifiers posted an average Adjusted Contact Score of 83.1 on their changeups. The color-coding above was determined relative to that average.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the changeups thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those whose ability to “pull the string” graded out as “plus” — i.e., B+ and above — using this measure.

Grade A – Dallas Keuchel, Astros
It might be a little surprising to see Keuchel atop this list. First, he threw his change much less frequently than almost all of the other AL qualifiers. His “A” is based on quality, not quantity, so he is not punished for this. He excelled at both primary measures, however, posting the second best Adjusted Contact Score and the fourth-best whiff rate on his change, both rating over a full standard deviation better than the AL average.

His actual numbers on the pitch weren’t as impressive, as he allowed a couple of “just enough” homers on the pitch, which, given the small sample size, was enough to puff his Unadjusted Contact Score up to a much less impressive 86. His changeup totally throttled grounder contact: hitters “should have” batted .137 AVG-.151 SLG (33 Adjusted Contact Score) based on exit-speed allowed.

Keuchel threw his changeup at an average of 79.4 mph last season, fourth slowest among qualifying AL starters. The 8.9 mph differential between his four-seamer and his change was fairly typical. Nothing stands out with regard to the pitch’s horizontal or vertical movement. What is clear is that he was effectively able to set up the pitch with his four-seamer, which he used 57.9% of the time.

Keuchel ranked 15th among AL qualifiers in total pitch-type run value for the change, and 11th in pitch value per 100 pitches. Based on this analysis, I’d say that Keuchel’s changeup was undervalued last season.

Grade A – David Price, Red Sox
This ranking, on the other hand, isn’t surprising at all. Price throws his changeup quite a bit, more than all but one of the pitchers upon whom we’ll focus today. Like Keuchel, Price excelled at both contact management and bat-missing with the pitch, ranking tied for third and a narrow second in those two categories among AL ERA qualifiers. He was over a full STD better than league average in pitch-specific whiff rate, and over a half STD better in Adjusted Contact Score.

Price induced a very high grounder rate on his changeup, much higher than Keuchel’s, though he didn’t thwart contact to the same extent as the Astro southpaw. Still, his pitch-specific fly-ball and grounder Adjusted Contact Scores were very solid, at 74 and 56, respectively.

He threw his changeup at an average velocity of 84.4 mph last season, with a fairly typical 8.5 mph differential between it and his four-seam fastball. It featured a great deal (10.8 inches) of horizontal movement, third most among AL qualifiers.

Price ranked first in the AL in total changeup pitch value, and second in pitch value per 100 pitches. Any way you slice it, this was a clear Grade A pitch in 2016.

Grade B+ – CC Sabathia, Yankees
On to the B-plusses. Sabathia didn’t throw his changeup up all that much last season, his 11.0% usage rate barely outdistancing Keuchel. As far as contact management is concerned, it was easily the most effective pitch of its type among AL qualifiers, with a 53 Adjusted Contact Score. Sabathia both minimized liners (which should regress moving forward) and maximized grounders (a true talent) on his change, totally smothering grounder authority (33 Adjusted Contact Score) in the process.

His bat-missing ability with the pitch, however, was much closer to league average than the pitchers mentioned previously, though he did rank sixth in whiff rate on the above list.

Sabathia threw his changeup at an average velocity of 83.4 mph, 6.0 mph slower than his average four-seam velocity. This differential was tied for the thirdsmallest spread among AL ERA qualifiers. As far as horizontal/vertical movement, the pitch possessed no defining characteristics.

The big lefty ranked eighth in overall changeup-specific value, and seventh in value per 100 pitches. I’d certainly rank him higher in the first measure, but due to limited quantity, I’d say the latter isn’t far off.

Grade B+ – Yordano Ventura, Royals
As usual, it’s difficult to speak about the departed, although it’s a bit easier when you’re focusing upon one of a player’s strengths. Ventura’s changeup wasn’t a particularly obvious strength; he ranked 20th in total changeup value, and 19th in value per 100 pitches. What gives?

Well, Ventura allowed a ridiculously high .889 AVG-1.333 SLG on liners hit off of his changeup, for an Unadjusted 202 Contact Score. Adjusted for exit speed, this dwindles to a more reasonable 122. More importantly, it was almost impossible for hitters to elevate Ventura’s change. Fly-ball and grounder authority (53 and 68 Adjusted Contact Scores) were both muted successfully.

Overall, his 66 pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score matched Price for third best among AL qualifiers overall, while his whiff rate was in the league-average range, and ninth among the above qualifiers.

He threw his changeup hard, as you might expect, at 86.1 mph, seventh hardest among AL qualifiers, with a 10.1 mph differential that was fourth largest among the AL pack. The pitch had the eighth-least vertical movement among this group, at 4.2 inches on average. Sadly, we won’t be able to see how Ventura might have been able to build upon the effectiveness of this pitch.

Grade B+ – Danny Duffy, Royals
The next two guys were just shades of grey shy of David Price in both the contact-management and bat-missing measures, landing just short of an A grade. Duffy finished tied for sixth in Adjusted Contact Score at 67, though he was just a tick short of finishing third. There were five guys way ahead of the pack in whiff rate, and Duffy was the fifth of them.

His pitch-specific grounder rate wasn’t particularly high, but Duffy compensated by severely limiting grounder authority (49 Adjusted Contact Score). Fly-ball authority was also held in check (71). He and teammate Ventura used their changeups with similar frequency, with 17.5% and 18.4% usage rates, respectively.

Duffy threw his changeup at an average of 85.2 mph, 10th hardest among AL qualifiers, with a 9.7 mph differential from his four-seamer that was sixth largest among that group. Its average horizontal and vertical movement were both much higher than average, ranking fifth and sixth among qualifiers, respectively.

The pitch-type run values also hold this pitch in high regard, ranking it fifth in the AL in overall changeup value, and sixth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Marco Estrada, Blue Jays
The changeup is Estrada’s bread and butter; if this pitch becomes an average pitch or worse, this guy will have a hard time retaining a material role. His change was well above average with regard to both contact management (70 Adjusted Contact Score) and — especially — bat-missing (21.5% whiff rate, third among AL qualifiers). He also threw it a ton, with the highest usage rate among qualifiers.

Estrada is a notorious pop-up/fly-ball guy, and while he gets more grounders than flies with his change, his pitch-specific grounder rate is still well below league norms. He absolutely muffles grounder authority with his change, however: batters hit just .065 AVG-.065 SLG (7 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground off of the pitch, and context moves that figure upward only modestly, to a 42 Adjusted Contact Score.

He threw his change at an average velocity of 77.2 mph in 2016, the slowest among AL qualifiers, and the 10.9 mph differential between it and his four-seamer was the largest among that group. The pitch had very little horizontal (5.5 inches, fifth least among this group) but significant vertical movement (10.8 inches, by far the most). Plenty of distinguishing characteristics there.

FanGraphs’ pitch values are in agreement with these conclusions: he ranked second in total changeup pitch value, and fifth in value per 100 pitches.

Next time, NL changeup artists.

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6 years ago

I believe Jharel Cotton’s change had something like a 17% whiff rate last year, in his small sample. And he’s off to an even better start, w/r/t his changeup in 2017.

6 years ago
Reply to  josephd10

Obviously he was nowhere near qualifications, but I saw an article about changeups, and automatically assumed it would be about Cotton.

Still a great article.