Introducing Baseball’s Next Top Changeup

Last spring, in Dodgers camp, a remarkable thing happened without any of us noticing. It’s not uncommon, of course, for a young prospect to seek out a veteran starting pitcher for conversation. That sort of thing happens all the time. But when Jharel Cotton was soaking in knowledge from Scott Kazmir that day, something unique was happening. Baseball’s top changeup was hanging out with baseball’s second-best changeup. A baton was being passed.

Evaluating a single pitch by results can be folly. Counts, context, and luck conspire to introduce a ton of noise. Think of Danny Duffy, who never got good results on his pitches with great movement and velocity, not until he was able to get strike one and go to those devastating secondary pitches in counts on which the batter had to swing.

So it’s compelling to think about movement and velocity when trying to evaluate a pitch for which there’s only a small sample. Context matters, naturally — what preceded the pitch in questions and where was it located? — but even accounting for those variables, we’ve been able to identify a few features that matter for the changeup. Velocity differential and drop are good for whiffs; horizontal movement is good for grounders.

If you look at the relationship between a pitch type’s whiff rate and grounder rate to that pitchers’ overall ERA estimators, it is twice as strong for whiffs. So, in order to evaluate last year’s changeups by movement and velocity, I took all the changeups thrown 100 times, added up their z-scores for vertical movement and horizontal movement and velocity (all defined off the fastball) and doubled the numbers for vertical movement and velocity gap. Look at the top.

Top Changeups by Movement & Velo
Pitcher swSTR% GB% Velo Gap ABS X Move Y Move MoveVeloZ
Scott Kazmir 17% 29% 14.8 7.9 4.0 7.7
Jharel Cotton 18% 35% 15.4 6.1 3.0 7.1
Brad Boxberger 12% 33% 12.8 6.9 2.3 6.9
Tony Sipp 28% 27% 13.3 9.4 2.0 6.7
Fernando Rodney 21% 22% 12.4 9.1 3.9 5.2
Christopher Devenski 21% 33% 11.4 5.5 3.1 3.6
Daniel Mengden 7% 33% 10.9 7.8 3.7 3.6
Michael Fulmer 19% 47% 8.9 6.4 1.8 3.6
Blaine Hardy 22% 24% 9.5 10.3 5.1 3.3
Tyler Clippard 11% 26% 9.4 0.6 0.6 3.2
Mat Latos 15% 21% 9.9 0.9 1.1 3.1
Mike Morin 20% 27% 19.3 1.5 7.6 2.9
Mike Pelfrey 15% 42% 11.0 5.3 -0.3 2.7
Brad Brach 21% 38% 8.3 8.8 0.5 2.7
Carlos Rodon 12% 31% 9.9 9.5 2.0 2.5
SOURCE: PITCHf/x
swSTR% = whiffs / pitches
Velo Gap = velocity difference between changeup and primary fastball
ABS X Move = absolute value of horizontal movement
MoveVeloZ = 2*(z-scores for vertical movement and velocity gap) + z-score for horizontal movement
n=292 pitchers that threw changeup 100+ times in 2016

A true meeting of the minds occurred that day. Of course, in light of the funky mechanics (Christopher Devenski‘s falls off the mound), funky grips (Tony Sipp’s stretched out fork), and funky pitches (Mat Latos and his critter) that appear on this leaderboard, one might expect Cotton to benefit from the peculiar somehow, as well.

He doesn’t, though. He’s got a normal circle-change grip.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing different about the way Cotton throws his changeup. “I spin it. I just spin it,” said Cotton with his trademark grin in Oakland this Tuesday. “Like a curveball, you try to spin it, to take the velocity off, same thing with a changeup.”

That might make some mechanics gurus cringe. Extreme pronation even made this author emote out loud when Dallas Braden demonstrated his screwball, which in some ways is just an “extremely spun” changeup. But Cotton has largely been healthy and doesn’t think it’s such a big deal.

Of course, context rears its ugly head even with a standout pitch. Cotton found himself giving up too many homers in 2014 and was searching for the third pitch to bring the arsenal together. In 2015, his High-A coach Billy Stephens stepped in. “He showed me the grip, offset fastball and how to throw it, and it’s gotten better and better.”

Cotton’s cutter has a little more than league-average drop for a right-hander, but that’s compared to a league-average fastball. Since he throws a riding fastball, he actually has two inches more drop than average. And that might make sense, because his cut fastball grip looks a lot more like Jake Peavy’s slider grip than it looks like Peavy’s cutter grip.

In any case, Cotton got whiffs on nearly a quarter of the 100-plus cutters he threw last year, and it’s helped ever since he implemented it back in High-A. “I like throwing that pitch,” Cotton laughed. “I’m trying to get the curveball on the same level.”

And that was his task this spring, to improve his newest pitch. Batters haven’t been swinging at his curve — his 27% swing rate is far below the 40% league average against curves — and he thinks he knows why. “They see it pop out of my hand and then they lay off of it,” opined Cotton. “Stay on top of the curve, stay on top of the cutter.” The sample is small, and curves generally have a higher release point, but it looks like Cotton shaved an inch off the difference between his cutter and curve release points this spring.

Cotton gave up 11 walks in 20.2 innings this spring, but he isn’t worried. “I have only walked five guys one time in my life and that was this spring,” he smiled. “Just getting back into the swing of things, working on the pitches.” We can give him a little credit if he was working on the curve and trying to get the feel back for his cutter.

It was worthy work. Even if you’ve got baseball’s top new changeup, you’ve got to develop your game around it. “I’m excited to prove myself again,” Cotton said, demonstrating his love for the game with a couple rounds of catch with the author before running into the clubhouse.

We hoped you liked reading Introducing Baseball’s Next Top Changeup by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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