Félix Hernández didn’t always throw his signature changeup. When he was a teenager coming up through the Mariners organization, his best pitches were his electric fastball and a nasty curveball. That breaking ball has stuck with him in some form or fashion throughout his career, but his changeup was an afterthought until around 2009, the year before he won the Cy Young award. Since then, his cambio has become almost synonymous with his approach as a pitcher.
The changeup has existed in the game as long as pitchers have been trying to disrupt the timing of the opposing batter. But Félix’s changeup was unlike any that had come before. “There is no one in baseball that throws a Félix Hernández changeup — no one,” Brandon Moss told Sports Illustrated back in 2014. What made it so unique was it’s combination of high velocity and elite vertical movement. He threw it around 90 mph when almost no one else in baseball was throwing a changeup that hard. Conventional wisdom assumed that the velocity differential was the most important aspect of a good changeup. Afterall, what better way to disrupt the timing of a batter than to throw two pitches with a significant gap in speed even though they look the same out of the hand.
Based on Harry Pavlidis’s research into effective changeups, we know that a large velocity differential is beneficial for inducing swings and misses. But he also found that changeups with good separation from the fastball by movement can also be effective. Félix’s cambio had the high velocity of a fastball — and the resulting small differential — but it dropped off the table like a splitter.
Félix’s legacy in Seattle is undeniable. Last night’s emotional celebration and send off is evidence enough of that. But his contribution to the history of baseball is a little harder to pin down. For years, it looked like his career was headed straight towards Cooperstown, but his recent struggles have cast a gloomy shadow on that trajectory. He’s clearly one of the best pitchers of this generation but perhaps his larger legacy is tied up in his signature pitch.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in high velocity changeups. Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom both throw changeups that average over 90 mph. But how prevalent are these hard changeups and when did that shift occur? I queried the Baseball Savant database to see how changeups have changed since pitch tracking was introduced in 2008. Below is a chart tracking league average changeup velocity compared to league average fastball velocity.
As fastball velocity has increased, changeup velocity has increased at a similar rate. Conceptually, this makes sense. As pitchers throw harder, it should follow that their entire arsenal is thrown a little harder as well. But has the average fastball-changeup velocity differential stayed the same as velocities increased?
|Year||Avg CH Velo||Avg FB Velo||Avg FB-CH Velo Diff|
If velocities of both pitches are increasing at a similar rate, we might expect that the average fastball-changeup velocity differential to stay relatively stable. Instead, we see that the average gap has narrowed.
These league-wide trends are reflected in the individual-level pitch data. In 2008, 48 different pitchers threw a changeup clocked at 89 mph or higher at least five times. In 2019, that number has exploded to 136 pitchers. If we look at average changeup velocity for pitchers who threw at least 50 changeups in a season, the trend becomes even more pronounced.
|Year||Average CH Velo >89 mph||FB-CH Velo Diff <5 mph|
In 2008, just one pitcher, Josh Beckett, threw a changeup that averaged over 89 mph. The next year, three pitchers joined him, including Félix. This year, 20 different pitchers have thrown a changeup with an average velocity over 89 mph. From 2008 to 2014, Félix was one of a handful of pitchers who threw a hard changeup. In 2015, the number of hard changeups in the league skyrocketed.
The number of pitchers with a small velocity gap has also increased, though not as sharply. Félix thrived despite seeing his fastball velocity deteriorate even as his changeup stayed around 89 mph. In every season since 2009, Félix’s velocity differential has been less than five miles per hour. Because of the pitch’s elite movement profile, he’s been able to induce both whiffs and ground balls with his cambio.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Félix’s changeup has been a model for throwing a hard changeup with a low velocity differential. Pitchers like Carlos Carrasco, Zack Greinke, and Sonny Gray have found success with similar changeups with a low speed gap. The changeups that Syndergaard, DeGrom, and Stephen Strasburg throw have a higher velocity differential because their fastballs are so hard, but their changeups all average over 89 mph with plenty of success. Félix may or may not have directly inspired these successors, but his cambio paved the way towards redefining what a hard changeup could look like.