Grading the Pitches: 2016 NL Starters’ Changeups

Previous: AL Starters’ Changeups.

While 2017 sample sizes build to a credible level, we’ll continue our series on 2016 ERA qualifiers’ pitch-specific quality. We’re giving all of the offerings a letter grade, weighted 50% on bat-missing and 50% on contact management. Last time out, we looked at AL starters’ changeups; today, we’ll switch to the senior circuit.

League-average range performance in both component measures would receive 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 – NL Qualifiers’ Changeups
Hendricks 55 23.7% A 26.8%
Garcia, J. 46 16.3% B+ 18.1%
Roark 53 14.9% B+ 9.8%
Finnegan 62 16.3% B+ 11.5%
Davies 68 22.5% B+ 20.6%
Hellickson 81 26.1% B+ 24.9%
Maeda 77 14.5% B 9.5%
Martinez, C. 79 15.4% B 19.1%
Bettis 80 16.7% B 10.7%
Fernandez, J. 84 13.3% B 12.7%
Scherzer 92 17.9% B 12.0%
Leake 83 8.4% C+ 8.5%
Teheran 85 5.9% C+ 8.6%
Gonzalez, G. 94 14.9% C+ 16.4%
Straily 94 15.0% C+ 18.3%
Cueto 97 17.7% C+ 18.9%

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.

As I noted in the AL piece, I’m a big fan of the changeup. 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. NL qualifiers posted an average Adjusted Contact Score of 76.9 on their changeups, the best of any pitch in either league. The color-coding above was determined relative to that average.

Oh, and Clayton Kershaw didn’t qualify for the ERA title, so he won’t be included in any of the NL pitch-specific analyses. Perhaps we’ll cover his greatness in a stand-alone article at the end of the series.

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 who earned grades of B+ and above.

Grade A – Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
It’s pretty clear that Hendricks’ changeup was the clear of the NL crop. It ranked a strong third in Adjusted Contact Score and second in whiff rate. On top of it all, it racked up the cumulative value, with a higher usage rate than any other NL qualifier’s changeup.

Hendricks threw his change at an average of 80.1 mph, the second slowest of any NL qualifier’s, and the 9.6 mph differential between it and his four-seamer tied for the second largest in the group. Movement-wise, it was a relatively unremarkable offering; its’ 4.6 inches of average horizontal movement was the least among this group, and the 4.8 inches of average vertical movement ranked in the middle of the pack.

It was all about disrupting timing for Hendricks; while he did yield a sizeable number of fly balls on the pitch, they were struck with little authority (50 Adjusted Contact Score). The FanGraphs pitch values agree with this grade: he ranked first both in total changeup value and value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jaime Garcia, Cardinals, now Braves
Hendricks receives our only “A” grade. The next three pitchers squelched contact with their changeups, but were only league-average-range bat-missers. Garcia was the best contact manager of all with his changeup, posting a 46 Adjusted Contact Score. He fared much, much better in this metric than he did in FanGraphs’ pitch-value rankings (16th overall, 18th per 100 pitches). This was due to a few just-enough homers that would have been outs in most situations. Adjusted for context, his 186 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score on his change plunges down to 35.

Garcia’s change was a fairly extreme grounder generator, much more so than Hendricks’. Those grounders were hit quite weakly (57 Adjusted Contact Score), to boot.

Garcia’s changeup was thrown at an average 82.2 mph, with a fairly typical 8.4 mph differential from his four-seam fastball. Both his average horizontal (8.2 inches) and vertical (4.2) ranked in the middle of the pack. Garcia’s raw numbers were uninspiring in 2016; but a little bit of digging shows that he still possessed a true out pitch, one the Braves hope will continue to serve him well.

Grade B+ – Tanner Roark, Nationals
I wish I knew how many Tanner Roark references I make in a given year. He’s the ultimate whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts guy. But some of the individual parts are pretty good, too. Roark only threw his changeup 9.8% of the time last season; no matter, he still racked up value, ranking fourth in overall FanGraphs’ changeup value and third in value per 100 pitches.

The actual production numbers he allowed on his change were microscopic: hitters batted just .171 AVG-.289 SLG (29 Unadjusted Contact Score) on balls in play. Adjusted for context, that number creeps upward to a still strong 53, second among NL qualifiers. This result is due in part to an extremely low liner rate allowed, which is a safe bet to regress upward looking ahead. His BIP mix was unremarkable, not nearly as grounder-heavy as Garcia’s, but he thwarted authority on all BIP types (Adjusted Contact Scores of 68, 69 and 47 on flies, liners and grounders, respectively).

Roark threw his change at an average 83.7 mph, 8.4 mph slower than his average four-seamer. Both of those figures are middle of the pack-ish. The pitch did move more than average, both horizontally (8.8 inches, tied for sixth most among NL qualifiers) and vertically (5.3, tied for eighth).

Grade B+ – Brandon Finnegan, Reds
Finnegan was one of the least effective qualifying starters in the majors last season, but it was due to his subpar command and the damage done to his four-seam fastball (which produced an unsightly 169 Adjusted Contact Score). His changeup was the best of his other offerings, largely because of its contact-management utility. While it wasn’t nearly as good as the actual results allowed (.140 AVG-.200 SLG, 16 Unadjusted Contact Score), it was pretty good. The pitch muffled authority of fly balls (43 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (44) alike, and recorded a healthy grounder rate.

Finnegan threw his change harder (85.0 mph) than the others we’ll discuss today, though it was only the 10th hardest in the NL. The 6.8 mph differential from his four-seamer tied for the fourth-smallest differential among NL qualifiers. Its 7.5 inches of average horizontal movement was fairly ordinary, but the 5.8 inches of average vertical movement was the fourth highest among this group.

Where can Finnegan go from here? Well, his increased fastball velocity should diminish the damage done to that pitch and make his change look even better in comparison, increasing the velocity spread between the two. It ranked third in FanGraphs’ changeup pitch value and second in value per 100 pitches last season.

Grade B+ – Zach Davies, Brewers
While Davies didn’t manage contact quite as well (68 Adjusted Contact Score) with his change as the three aforementioned B+ recipients, only two hurlers missed more bats with the pitch among NL qualifiers. He also used the pitch plenty, 20.6% of the time to be exact.

Davies allowed a fairly healthy fly-ball rate with the pitch, though he severely limited their authority (43 Adjusted Contact Score). He was hurt by his hitter-friendly home park on this front (recording a pitch-specific 120 Unadjusted Fly Ball and 96 Overall Contact Score).

His changeup was the slowest (78.5 mph), with the largest differential from his fastball (10.8 mph) among NL qualifiers. While its average vertical movement was unremarkable (3.7 inches), it was above average in horizontal movement (8.8 inches, tied for sixth). FanGraphs’ pitch-value metrics liked the pitch as well: it ranked fifth in overall changeup value and sixth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies
While all five other pitchers discussed today managed contact well with their changeups, Hellickson’s success was heavily slanted toward the bat-missing side of the equation. His pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score of 81 was actually a little worse than the NL changeup average, largely because of a fly-ball- and liner-heavy BIP mix. His 26.1% whiff rate on the pitch, however, is the only “red” cell in the above table, over two full STD above league average.

Hellickson’s change was thrown at an average of 80.4 mph, the third slowest among NL qualifiers, and the 9.6 mph differential between it and his four-seamer tied for the second largest. Quite a few low velocities and big differentials in this high-achieving group. The pitch had relatively significant vertical movement (5.5 inches, sixth most in the NL) and little horizontal movement (7.1 inches, seventh least).

Only Hendricks threw his changeup more than Hellickson (24.9%) among NL qualifiers. This combination of quality and usage propelled it to high FanGraphs’ rankings (second in total changeup value, fifth in value per 100 pitches).

Interestingly, my metric and the FanGraphs pitch-value rankings agreed on five of the top six NL changeup artists. The sixth was Julio Teheran, who ranks near the bottom of my rankings. He ranked last among NL qualifiers in changeup whiff rate, and his actual contact-management results (Unadjusted Contact Score of 48 on all BIP) were colored by extreme good luck on both fly balls (44 Unadjusted vs. 81 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (46 vs. 105).

Next time, we’ll move on to the curve-balls, starting with the American League.

We hoped you liked reading Grading the Pitches: 2016 NL Starters’ Changeups by Tony Blengino!

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Hey Tony! I love all of your work with both on the hitting and pitching side of things. A lot of these guys like Davies, Hendricks, Roark are the “peripheral beater” type that gets underrated. Is there something to be learned here?