PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – When we think about Tampa Bay Rays pitching over the last decade, the image of opposing hitters flailing helplessly over the top of changeups — offerings with velocity separation and depth — is likely one of the first to come to mind. That’s what comes to my mind. I think about hitters whiffing at Rays’ changeups, even on occasions when they’ve anticipated the pitch. I think about pitchers who have possessed pedestrian velocity and breaking stuff, who may not might have otherwise had much of a major-league career without the pitch. I think about a pitcher like James Shields, a founding father of the Rays’ changeup philosophy and track record.
Since 2010, the Rays lead baseball in runs produced above average by means of the changeup, according to FanGraphs pitch-type linear weight (174.8). The next closest club is the Mariners with a mark of 108.0. The Rays lead baseball in changeup usage (14.7%) since 2010, as well.
When I traveled to Rays camp last week to write about the Rays’ high-fastball philosophy, I also wanted to ask longtime Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey about the club’s changeup philosophy. My assumption was that Rays coaches teach the pitch well, that it’s part of an organizational philosophy. And while Hickey and the Rays value the pitch, he said philosophy alone doesn’t explain the club’s success with the pitch from pitchers like Shields and David Price, to Alex Cobb and now Jake Odorizzi.
“It’s not so much a philosophy as it is a lineage,” Hickey said.
Hickey said what explains the club’s success with the pitch isn’t so much a product of organizational philosophy, or coaching, as it is the result of pitchers with effective changeup grips passing along their craft to teammates.
“James Shields was arguably the best pitcher I had at the time [when Hickey arrived in 2006], and what Shields had was a really, really good changeup. And without the changeup he’s probably a major-league pitcher, but he’s not a 10-year, 225-innings-a-year guy,” Hickey said. “And here comes a guy like Jeremy Hellickson, who, without his changeup, is a pretty good minor-league pitcher. What happens is guys start to mimic each other. When David Price came in, he didn’t even possess a changeup. He threw a four-seam fastball and a slider. He’s watching Shields do his thing. He’s learning a changeup. He comes back with a pretty good changeup. Just like with Cobb and Odorizzi. They kind of mimic each other and teach each other.”
And for that reason, perhaps clubs should place a premium on pitchers who possess elite pitches and are able to share and articulate their grips and practices.
Pitchers also know each other’s stories. Shields credited the changeup with saving his career, according Joe Smith to of the Tampa Bay Times:
When he “lost” his curveball in the minors, he lived off his changeup, a pitch he said can be easier to throw for a strike than a breaking ball. In one minor-league game, Shields remembers 65 of his 85 pitches were changeups. “At that point I was on the brink of release,” he said. “I was trying to do anything to be successful.”
Eno Sarris has documented the changeup grips of Cobb and Odorizzi, and it was to Cobb where Odorizzi turned when looking to add another pitch. He had struggled with more conventional changeup grips in the past. Cobb has an unusual split-changeup grip. As AL East batters know well, the pitch has excellent depth and movement.
“I could just never take enough off a changeup,” Odorizzi said. “The grips never allowed me to have that separation. So I go and try [Cobb’s grip] through a normal arm speed, and it was more about movement than speed differential. Sometimes it’s 5-6 mph differential… I need the movement.”
Owen Watson wrote about the evolution of Price’s changeup last offseason.
The Rays have handed down elite changeup grips and philosophy from one rotation arm to the next. While there was a dip in the club’s effectiveness with the pitch the last two seasons — in part because of Cobb’s injury — Rays’ pitchers have generally become more effective with the pitch since Shields arrived at the major-league level. Even after the departure of an arm like Shields, the changeup forebear who was traded after the 2012 season, the Rays have continued to changeup well:
Now, of course, Rays coaches and officials certainly encourage use of the pitch. They’ve identified pitchers with plus changeups to acquire like Jose De Leon.
“I’ve always been a huge advocate of changeups,” Hickey said. “I like changeups because it’s the easiest pitch to throw in the strike zone [amongst] non-fastballs. If you have a nasty curveball, that’s great. But if it gets to a 3-1 count, and the bases are loaded, and you don’t want to walk that guy in, you are probably not snapping off a hook. Hellickson is a great example. I remember one time it was bases loaded, it was 3-1, and he threw three consecutive changeups and struck the guy out. That’s why I like it.”
Here’s another example of Hellickson throwing a full-count changeup with the bases loaded back in 2012:
“When I personally became a huge advocate of the changeup is when the strike zone shrunk. I really think the strike zone shrunk after Camden Yards opened, and the PED era, and everybody is hitting 50 home runs,” Hickey said. “We used to joke you had to throw it in a damn shoebox. You couldn’t do that with a lot of offspeed stuff. You don’t see a lot of fastball-curveball starters. It was fastball-changeup-slider starters.”
And while the strike zone grew every year from 2008 to -15 according to PITCHf/x data, it shrunk last season.
“Another reason I’m a big advocate of it is there is nothing to identify it,” Hickey said. “A curveball might have a little hump to it, have some spin to it, a slider might have some spin to it.”
Hickey also believe it is the “easiest pitch to physically teach.”
And the Rays pitchers have taught the pitch to each other as well as any club in the sport. It makes their story less about an organizational philosophy, and more about the importance of handing down a skill from one generation to the next, having a master craftsman teach an apprentice.