Zack Greinke’s changeup may only seem different this year. By the stats, it drops a bit more and it’s harder, sure. But if you ask the pitcher, the pitch itself hasn’t changed much. “I throw it more this year,” he said when I asked him what was different about it.
If the systems have the change dropping more this year — estimates run from about a half inch to an inch more drop this year over previous years — there might be something else going on. The systems might be grabbing bad changeups and classifying them as sinkers, while calling the bendier pitches changeups.
“If the pitch isn’t inside to a righty, it’s probably a changeup and not a sinker,” Greinke told me before a game with the Dodgers. He estimated that he’d thrown about five sinkers to lefties this year — “It moves just into their barrel, it’s not a good pitch.”
PITCHf/x says that Greinke has thrown 122 sinkers to lefties this year. Those pitches have a half-inch more drop than the sinkers he’s thrown on the inside part of the plate to righties. It’s probable that some of those sinkers are four-seamers and some are changeups. Take this “sinker” to a lefty-swinging Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which had three inches more drop than his normal sinkers, and hit 88.5 mph on the gun.
That pitch also had more than an inch less drop than his average changeup, and would have pushed the average drop on his change slightly northward if it had been called a changeup. If Greinke thinks that he’s thrown five sinkers to lefties, even if he’s got it a little off, there’s a good chance that many of the 122 sinkers PITCHf/x says he’s thrown were actually changeups.
Before you blame the systems too harshly, note that Greinke has the second-smallest separation between the velocities on his sinker and change, so it’s hard on the systems. The pitcher knows it, too: “I guess I just try to throw a sinker when I throw the change, because my two-seam doesn’t move much. The plan was just to throw the changeup as hard as possible and use it kind of like a sinker.”
Really, what’s going on with the changeup this year is a progression that started with… Ramon Ramirez. The Royals reliever had a 93 mph fastball, and an 88 mph changeup. “But he threw his changeup like 70% of the time, that’s what it seemed like at least,” smiled Greinke. “So me and [fellow Royal pitcher Brian Bannister tried to throw his changeup because our changeups were terrible. So we tried to make them harder and make them move as much as possible.”
He’s not worried about the velocity any more, as you can tell. “I just try to throw good pitches and I don’t worry about the speed,” Greinke agreed. “If my arm speed is as hard as I can get it and it moves, that’s better than trying to worry about the speed of the pitch.” That is consistent with the best research on what makes a changeup good, and also explains this excellent graph from Jeff Sullivan’s piece on Greinke’s changeup.
Sullivan’s piece — which is great — says that Greinke is “pulling a Felix Hernandez” and the fact that the pitch is getting harder and finding great results even as it’s thrown more is a strong point in that favor. So, too, is the pitcher completely agreeing. “The changeup started working decently but it’s always good to see it working for someone else and Felix was the first person to actually make it a standout pitch.”
I prodded him on what he learned from Hernandez, but Greinke would only give one clue. “Mine was good last year against lefties, but I watched him a lot how he uses it against righties, and I was always nervous to use it against righties because I thought it was a home run pitch,” the Dodger pitcher said.
Here’s how Felix Hernandez has used his changeup against righties over the last two years.
Here’s how Greinke used his changeup against righties last year.
And here’s how Greinke has been using his changeup against righties this year.
Take a look at the inside corner — it’s growing. He’s catching more of the plate and throwing more down the middle and even using the outside corner against righties more, but he’s still keeping it down. The changeup breaks down and towards the righty batter, and the inside corner is the hitter’s happiest zone for home runs per fly ball. So Greinke was right to worry about it being a home run pitch.
Except it’s not, for him. He manages to keep it down below the zone most of the time. When he doesn’t, the changeup actually has a below-average whiffs per swing rate in the zone (29% worse than league average). “Sometimes it moves more than others, and if it moves a lot, it’s usually a ball I guess,” he shrugged. The trick has been executing better and more often this year.
Ask Zack Greinke to sum up what’s happened with his changeup and you get a quote that would make Yogi Berra smile: “You just have to get as good a pitch as possible and use that pitch.” It sounds simple, but it’s a great description of what he’s done with his changeup. He made it better, and then he used it more.
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.