The most unfair thing to imagine in baseball is Aroldis Chapman learning a knuckleball. The next-most unfair thing to imagine in baseball is Aroldis Chapman learning a changeup. This year Aroldis Chapman got around to learning a changeup, and things got weird. When we last checked in on June 19, batters had attempted 14 swings against the change, and not a single one of those swings had made any kind of contact. Later that day, Pirates batters attempted two more swings against the change, and both of them whiffed. So, at one point this year, through 16 swings, Chapman’s changeup had a contact rate of 0.0%. That’s a low rate that put Chapman’s change among the league leaders.
I thought it would make sense to check back in, now that more than a month has passed. I’m fascinated to no end by the idea of Chapman throwing an offspeed pitch, but sadly, it would appear that Chapman and the changeup are on a bit of a break. Not that it isn’t understandable. And not that Chapman needs a changeup to be a good reliever. He really, really doesn’t. I can’t emphasize this enough. Chapman in whatever form is amazing. It’s just that the most hilarious pitch in baseball is taking a nap.
The changeup no longer has a contact rate allowed of 0.0%. Today it stands at 5.6%, with one contact swing out of 18 attempts. Back on June 26, Adam Duvall of the Giants put a changeup in play, with certain authority.
That’s not why the pitch has gone missing. But, it’s presumably related to why, and the pitch has gone missing. We can break Chapman’s season into little segments:
- Segment 1: 4 appearances, 87 pitches, 0% changeups
- Segment 2: 14 appearances, 233 pitches, 19% changeups
- Segment 3: 13 appearances, 216 pitches, 5% changeups
A sub-segment of Segment 3 — let’s call it Segment 3b — covers Chapman’s last six appearances. He’s thrown 96 pitches and two changeups, not counting the five non-changeups he threw in the All-Star Game. It’s not Chapman’s slider rate that’s wavered. All year long, he’s thrown roughly one slider for every four pitches. But, in Segment 1, Chapman threw 75% fastballs. In Segment 2, 55% fastballs. In Segment 3, 69% fastballs. The changeup isn’t completely dead, but it’s not a feature pitch, like it was for about a month earlier on.
Why? Well, I was afraid of this. Here’s a recent example changeup:
Maybe that doesn’t tell you very much. In which case, here are all of Chapman’s changeups:
He’s thrown 22% of his changeups in the strike zone. Now, that’s not unusual — that’s a similar rate to Felix Hernandez. But, to stretch the comparison, 62% of Felix’s changeups have been strikes. For Chapman, that rate is 41%, because Felix has good changeup command and Chapman does not. It’s one thing to throw a changeup out of the zone, but Chapman’s thrown several of them really out of the zone. He’s missed high, he’s missed in the middle, and he’s missed low. Chapman’s changeup has a lot of margin of error because it’s so unfairly different from his fastball, so even a changeup down the middle isn’t so bad, but this isn’t a pitch Chapman can spot. And, why throw balls if you don’t need to? If you can live fastball/slider, why not live fastball/slider?
During Segment 2, Chapman struck out 57% of his batters faced. During Segment 3, he’s struck out 53% of his batters faced. During Segment 3b, covering six appearances, he’s struck out 70% of his batters faced, or 14 out of 20. That’s while throwing just two changeups. See, Chapman has this thing he can do:
He can throw 103 miles per hour, with better location than he should be allowed to have.
Chapman hasn’t really been better since putting the changeup in his back pocket. But he hasn’t been worse, either, and given that he’s throwing harder than he ever has, there’s just so little incentive to put in the work to make the changeup a more consistent weapon. He doesn’t need it to do his job, so why feature it if batters can’t touch the two pitches he’s thrown for years? It would help him, of course, to learn a better changeup if he ever wants to be a starting pitcher, but that’s not going to be something the catcher is thinking about during a 2014 save opportunity. Long-term interests go out the window when you’re a team trying to make the postseason, and Chapman is an absolute freak because of his fastball velocity.
And it’s worth noting that he might’ve improved his command. Relative to last year, his average fastball has been three inches higher in 2014, and Chapman wants the fastball up in the zone. After throwing 65% of fastballs at mid-thigh or higher before, this year he’s at 77%. Also, Chapman’s using his slider differently. Previously, he threw 52% of his sliders over the glove-side third of the plate, or beyond. This year, he’s at 73%, so those sliders are more outside against lefties and more inside against righties. Chapman has changed things up a bit, and when you’re dealing with a higher fastball than ever, and a harder fastball than ever, and a better-located slider down, adding a changeup barely pushes the needle because what the hell are you supposed to do against even just the first two pitches? A good changeup would make the package maybe literally unhittable, but an inconsistent changeup is just about unnecessary.
So, here’s the unsurprising thing: Aroldis Chapman’s changeup is a work in progress. The movement is fine, and the speed differential is fine, but it isn’t a pitch he can locate very well. If he could, he’d be the most dominant pitcher in baseball, but as is, he’s still maybe the most dominant pitcher in baseball, and there just isn’t much reason for him to work hard on improving his changeup in games at the moment. Bullpens? Fine. Next spring training? Fine. But, batters couldn’t hit Chapman a year ago. Right now, it makes sense for him to mix one in every so often just to give hitters a different look, and to keep it in their heads. But, maybe Chapman’s optimal changeup rate is about 4 – 5%. One every two games or so. It’d be higher if the pitch were better, but it’s not and it doesn’t need to be. Every player in baseball has room for improvement, but if Chapman’s intention is to throw mostly fastballs and sliders down the stretch, I think that’s forgivable. After all, before he was Aroldis Chapman with a changeup, he was Aroldis Chapman.
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