Like many teams across Major League Baseball this season, the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation got bitten by the injury bug. The ace of their rotation, right-hander Brandon Beachy, underwent Tommy John surgery — as did prized prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Both will not return before the end of the season.
The pitching depth that Atlanta had accumulated was supposed to help weather the storm, but the results have been underwhelming. That has forced Atlanta to look elsewhere for a starting pitcher. Preferring the least-expensive route, the organization did not turn to the trade market and instead signed former All-Star Ben Sheets to a minor-league deal.
On Sunday afternoon, Sheets made his first major-league start since 2010 and dominated the New York Mets over six scoreless innings. He struck out five and only walked one, generating ten whiffs over an 88-pitch outing. In many ways, it was like watching the old Ben Sheets on the mound.
In one particular aspect, though, it was very much a different Ben Sheets.
The 33-year-old Sheets has always been known for his mid-90s fastball and hammer curveball. While most starting pitchers need at least three pitches to find success as a starter in the big leagues, Sheets has always been one of the exceptions. He has dabbled with a changeup throughout his career, but the most he had ever thrown his changeup was in 2010 and even that was only thrown 8.8% of the time.
If his start on Sunday serves as a harbinger for future events, that two-pitch, power pitcher from earlier in his career is now gone. Sheets heavily featured a changeup against the Mets. He surprisingly threw the pitch 21.6% of the time.
Throwing it more often does not necessarily mean the pitch is more effective. Sheets did not generate a single swing-and-miss off his changeup and threw it for a strike in fewer than half of his attempts. The velocity differential from his fastball to changeup was also only five-to-six miles per hour, which is short of the standard ten miles per hour that is generally preferred.
As you can also see in this strike zone chart, when he did throw strikes with his changeup, he missed up in the zone rather frequently:
The interesting aspect of his changeup usage was that Sheets preferred to use his changeup against right-handed batters, which is a bit uncommon for a right-handed pitcher because most changeups from righties — including that of Ben Sheets — moves in toward right-handed batters. Sheets only threw five changeups to lefties and threw 14 changeups to righties.
The influx of changeups in his arsenal seem to point toward a desire to save his elbow. That is, until one realizes that the Louisiana native did not throw a lower percentage of curveballs (28.4%); instead, he threw significantly fewer fastballs than normal.
Instead, Sheets likely realizes that he needs a changeup as he ages. He can no longer bump 95 or 96 miles per hour with his fastball. His fastest pitch on Sunday was 93 mph, and his average fastball velocity was 90-91 mph. Sheets is not as overpowering as he once was, meaning he needs more options on the mound. A functional changeup will give opposing batters a third pitch to keep in the back of their mind, and ideally, make his fastball more effective.
Of course, we are analyzing all of this after just one start in two years. One start does not make a trend. It will be interesting, however, to follow Sheets for the remainder of the season and determine if he continues to heavily feature a changeup and how it ultimately affects his success on the mound because it fundamentally deviates from his pattern of success earlier in his career.