James Shields Dominating Hitters With His Changeup

Making predictions in baseball isn’t actually about predicting the future. We know from decades of experience and more than a century of history that you cannot predict baseball. Instead, predictions act as a jumping-off point for interesting discussions. Dave Cameron knows this. Before the season began he made a series of predictions that included James Shields as the AL Cy Young winner. We used this to create an interesting conversation on FanGraphs Audio, during which I expressed some confusion over the pick. Shields has always been a solid pitcher, but he never struck me as a Cy Young candidate. So what did Dave see in him?

Whatever he saw became evident to everyone earlier in the season. Shields mowed down opponents like he never had before. Through his first 10 starts he not only held a 2.99 ERA, but had struck out 71 in 69.1 innings, far exceeding his career average. It might have been a fluke, since we know that anything can happen in 10 starts. Watching Shields, though, something felt different. It was as if he had figured something out during the off-season and was putting it to use on American League hitters.

The difference was most noticeable with his changeup. He threw the pitch at nearly the same frequency as 2009, but the results were much better. While in 2009 he got batters to whiff on 17.4 percent of his changeups, during his first 10 starts in 2010 he got an astonishing 26.1 percent swings and misses. He had generated a few more swings in general, but the increase was not at all in line with the swings and misses. Combine that with a lower foul-ball rate, and it seems like the change really turned a corner.

After that 10th start, an eight-inning, two-run effort against Boston, Shields hit something of a rough patch. In his next eight starts he pitched just 47 innings, striking out 38. Worse, he had allowed a ton of runs in that period, a 7.66 ERA, bringing his season total to 4.87 after the Indians scored four runs in 6.1 innings against him on July 9. That stretch certainly changed the view of Shields’s season. For starters, Cameron stopped bragging about his awesome pick. But it also signaled that maybe the early season run was just that, a run of excellent starts. Pitchers have them all the time, so why should Shields be any different?

When I went to check Shields’s pitch selection for this period I expected to see that he reduced his changeup usage, instead dipping into the other pitches in his deep arsenal. Surprisingly, I saw an insignificant drop, down to 22.5 percent. He was still generating plenty of swings and misses, 20 percent, but not as many as earlier in the season. On the surface it might look as though he was just getting lucky with the changeup early in the season, and that hitters had finally figured out how to handle it — relatively, at least. Yet looking a bit deeper, this might not have been the case at all.

A fledgling yet intensely interesting aspect of baseball analysis is pitch sequencing. It’s interesting because so much of the batter-pitcher matchup relies on how the pitcher sequences his pitches. It’s intense because even though two pitchers may throw the same pitches in name, their pitches still have different effects. In other words, pitch sequence efficiency and effectiveness is going to vary pitcher-to-pitcher. I don’t have any analysis on Shields’s actual pitch selection, but rather an observation from his first 10 starts compared to his next eight.

In the first 10 it seemed as though he leaned on his fastballs and changeup more than the rest of his repertoire. To wit, he threw his four-seamer 20.1 percent of the time, his two-seamer 26.4 percent, and his changeup 23.5 percent, totaling 70 percent of his overall pitches. Yet during his rough patch he turned to the other pitches in his arsenal more frequently, going to those three pitches 61 percent of the time. He actually did increase his usage of another fastball, his cutter, though that is more complementary to his slider.

Could it be that moving away from the two-seamer changed his sequencing and therefore made his changeup more hittable? Without a strict sequencing mechanism in place it’s tough to say. Shields did improve in his first three starts after the All-Star break, though in this case we saw him use his changeup even less, 16.8 percent, and his four-seamer more, 32 percent. Yet in these starts he turned to his curveball more often and generated a 14.8 percent swinging strike rate, over 10.2 percent on his changeup. So was the pitch less effective in general, or just less effective because he’d been using it less frequently?

If yesterday’s start was any indication, it’s the latter. Sheilds attacked the Yankees with almost 70 percent four-seamers and changeups, using the changeup for 31 of of his 116 pitches. With it, he generated 35.5 swinging strikes, leading to 11 strikeouts. When he wasn’t getting hitters to swing and miss he was getting them to hit the ball on the ground, as only six out of 16 balls in play got some air under them. It was an all-around dominant start, made possible almost exclusively with the changeup.

Shields’s odd season makes it difficult to pinpoint what he’s doing well and what is luck. As we saw, he used his changeup about the same in his first 10 starts as he did his next eight, yet he saw drastically different results in those starts. Then he turned away from the change and saw positive results, and then had what might have been his best start of the season yesterday by leaning heavily on the change. So what works best for him overall?

It’s a fallacy to say that because his changeup is so good that he should throw it more often. If hitters know it’s coming it’s easier to lay off and therefore won’t be as effective. Yet with Shields’s case that might not be the case. As our own R.J. Anderson said in the River Ave. Blues Yanks-Rays series preview:

Shields is such a weird case. You’re talking about a guy with maybe the best changeup in the American League who says and does intelligent things all the time; I would not be shocked to see him become a pitching coach down the line because he helps teammates with mechanical issues and philosophical talk. He seems to understand game theory and he’s even said this season that he likes it when team’s ambush him and figure him out. Presumably so he can mix things up. You can see that attitude prevalent in his arsenal too. He could probably just throw the changeup all day and night with good results – ask Nick Swisher – but he goes to a cutter, he goes to a curve, and sometimes maybe he outthinks himself.  Joe Magrane used to say he gave the hitter too much credit by not throwing his change more often and maybe he had a point.

It does seem that leaning heavily on the changeup works, especially when it goes along with a correspondingly heavy usage of his fastball. Shields does have other weapons, and by all means he shouldn’t let them become stale. But with an all-world changeup, he might not need those weapons unless the changeup fails him here and there. It doesn’t seem, though, like that happens too often.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.


20 Responses to “James Shields Dominating Hitters With His Changeup”

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  1. Jimmy says:

    Shields > Lincecum now that Lincecum throwing about 87 MPH

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    Whatever he saw became evident to everyone earlier in the season. Shields mowed down opponents like he never had before. Through his first 10 starts he not only held a 2.99 ERA, but had struck out 71 in 69.1 innings, far exceeding his career average.

    For me, this is the jumping off point for a good discussion.

    [1] Has he ever had as good, or even better, 10 game stretch in his career?
    [2] If you take the top 10 pitchers in the AL and look at their “best” 10 game stretch, where does Shields 10 game stretch fit in?

    For a 10 game stretch it doesn’t seem to be overwhelming, especially for a CYA candidate. Antyway …

    In his next eight starts he pitched just 47 innings, striking out 38. Worse, he had allowed a ton of runs in that period, a 7.66 ERA,

    Funny how that happens.

    Without a strict sequencing mechanism in place it’s tough to say.

    I agree completely. IMO, a good amount of things chalked up to “luck” (good or bad) probably have more to do with [1] location and [2] sequencing. A combination of those would be just outstanding. It would take a pretty strong model and analysts to decipher it …. imagine trying to compute “BA on CU on a 2-1 count following a 1st pitch fastball then cutter” in a spreadsheet. Add in location and it’s a quagmire where sperating the usefull stuff could be difficult.

    I maintain, that a lot of our “randomness” is just lack of information. I think we’ll found that pitchers “help” the hitter” quite a bit with poor location or not going with their (pitcher) strength and trying to “out-think” the hitter.

    When I hit the powerball, I’ll fund studies that examine production statistics by location, sequence, pitch type, etc. I can spend a lot of money and waste a lot of time on something that me and 6 other guys are interested. It’s gonna be awesome.

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  3. tdotsports1 says:

    Guess he isn’t winning the Cy this year! ;)

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  4. 198d says:

    Shaun Marcum is another guy with a monster change, probably even better than Shields.

    Shields: WCH/C -> 2.19
    Marcum: WCH/C -> 2.89

    Marcum’s fastball is also pretty pedestrian at ~87 MPH… given his success, I’d also agree with this:

    “It does seem that leaning heavily on the changeup works”

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  5. CircleChange11 says:

    The change-up and cutter are two pitches that every pitcher should be able to throw well. If you can throw a fastball with command, you can do the same with these two pitches.

    Why more guys don’t is beyond me. My guess is because a lot of guys only start throwing a change in college or later, out of necessity, but never master the pitch.

    The ones that do throw a good change likely had to early on due to lack of dominant fastball. I blame coaches that just ride a kids heat, without ever fevelping them as a pitcher. Fastball-curve pitchers only are the majority of what I have seen in prep baseball. It bugs the heck out of me that so many teach the curve as the 1st second pitch learned, when a change is the easier pitch to throw and master, and it can be dine at age 9 or 10 provided hands are big enough, without adverse affect to the arm.

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    • Justin Mosovsky says:

      Just a second opinion, but my bro is a lefty pitcher, and in his opinion throwing a change up with the same speed and arm motion as a fastball AND keeping command of it is extremely difficult. He has a fastball, curveball, and slider but not a good change up because of command issues with it. Maybe the change up really is harder to master than you might think.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Background: Along with being a school adminstrator, I’m a pitching coach for the junior high (fall) and high school teams (spring), and also 2 youth league teams (summer). I teach pitching to kids (literally) from the ages of 9 to 18.

        The MAJOR obstacles in learning a changeup are [1] practicing enough, and [2] fear.

        I have ALL pitchers play catch with the changeup grip when they are warming up with the team. That’s 50 reps right there (Why are they practicing their fastball grip, hasn’t that received enough attention over their last 10 years?) Once they can spot it regularly, then we start working on turning it over slightly to get some run.

        We throw “short pens” every day, just 30 or so pitches at 65% intensity (I liken it to “shooting free throws”) and we keep track of “spots hit” (5 FB in, 5 FB, out … 4 CV in, 4 CV out, so on). The more spots you hit, the more advanced stuff we can work on.

        A change-up is, quite literally, a “fastball”. The difference is that with a fastball the index and middle fingers are on the seams, with the change, it’s the middle and ring fingers. However you place your other fingers is up to you (cross your index and thumb, make a circle, whatever … your choice, comfort). Holding the ball with the middle 2 fingers forces the ball deeper in the hand, than with the 2-seam FB, which can be held with fingertips. That is what reduces the speed. Everything else is the same.

        On occassion, I will have pitchers throw changeups without telling the catcher, to play with the idea that it’s “nothing different” (for the pitcher’s psyche), and I want the catcher to tell him if he noticed anything different with motion.

        If I have a guy that is slowing his arm down on his change, I’ll get out the radar gun and dare him to throw it as “hard as he can” … it ends up being the best change he’s ever thrown. Grunt for effect, if you want to. *grin*

        FEAR. omigod, If I hang a change it’ll be blasted 350 feet. At our level, I say “true” when a pitcher voices that conceern, but then I add “but it’ll be 90 feet foul. Strike 2. Who cares how far it went?” In HS, there just aren’t that many hitters that can either [1] stay back on a change, or [2] hit the hell out of it off their front foot while keeping their hands back.

        The MAIN focus of a change is [1] reduced speed (does that on its own), and [2] location down in the zone. As my guys get better with it I have them visualize “dropping the change” on top opf the catcher’s foot.

        So, we practice the change 60+ times a day. None of that really comes into play until a guy throws a 2-0 changeup (we call pitches, no shake offs) to a 3-hitter and gets a ground ball to 3rd. Then the light bulb comes on, and a pitcher is born.

        Now, if I could just get kids in this generation to be courageous enough to spot a fastball 5 inches off the inside corner, I’d write a book. *big grin*

        If you have any questions, or want to contact me via e-mail feel free. This is one area where I have had a lot of success. I ignored the advice as a 84mph guy in college, thinking my FB, CT, and CV were enough … and it cost me. A tall lefty with a good change and location can do wonders. Kids practice their fastball 20+ times more than their changeup and then wonder why they’re not as comfortable with it. Well … it’s all about being comfortable and confident (comes with practice and experience) and conquoring the fear of throwing it in fastball counts (also comes from practice and experience).

        Sorry for the length. Obviously, changeups are my passion (with cutters a close second).

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      • tdotsports1 says:

        Great post circle change, very informative. I tried to develop a change (in senior level hardball, believe me, I wasn’t a prospect or anything, but decent) and I started way too late and I had ZERO control of it.

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    • CFutt19 says:

      CircleChange11- I am a fifteen year old lefty and a sophomore in high school. Due to the lack of velocity on my fastball I developed my change when I was 8. It was my best pitch for years, and I relied on it heavily. However a couple years ago I just lost it for some reason, and have been trying to get it back to that level since. When I throw my changeup now with a regular two-seam circle grip it seems to go a little to faster than the 10 mph difference, albeit with decent sink. However when I turn it over (pronate early) it goes much slower with tremendous tail/sink. But I fear the spin can be picked up by hitters, defeating the point of the changeup. Any advice? Also one more thing, loose grip or tight?

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    • CFutt19 says:

      CircleChange11- I am a fifteen year old lefty and a sophomore in high school. Due to the lack of velocity on my fastball I developed my change when I was 8. It was my best pitch for years, and I relied on it heavily. However a couple years ago I just lost it for some reason, and have been trying to get it back to that level since. When I throw my changeup now with a regular two-seam circle grip it seems to go a little to faster than the 10 mph difference, albeit with decent sink. However when I turn it over (pronate early) it goes much slower with tremendous tail/sink. But I fear the spin can be picked up by hitters, defeating the point of the changeup. Any advice? Also one more thing, loose grip or tight?

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  6. Misfit says:

    Perhaps in trying to deduce why Shields fell off after 10 starts you’re not looking at the right pitch? The success of a change-up seems to be, at least in a theoretical sense, tied to the fastball. The better the location and separation (in velocity) between the two the better. I’m not a Rays fan so I only saw a couple starts by Shields early in the season, but one thing that jumped out at me were the readings on the radar gun for his fastball. I’ve always thought of Shields as a 90mph guy with the heat but he was hitting 94 and 95, which was new to me. Perhaps that initial surge in velocity was unsustainable for Shields and as the fastball became weaker, his success diminished. A quick look at the pitchfx charts does show a spike in velocity on the fastball before falling off for a period and then just becoming random. Perhaps this is nothing and we’re just looking at a classic case of regression to the mean with Shields. At any rate, the change-up is good and has always been good for Shields. He’s unlikely to win the Cy-Young but he’s certainly developed into a very capable top of the rotation guy for the Rays who might actually one day live up to that “Big Game James” label some have placed on him.

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  7. 2LD says:

    Going with the topic of pitch selection theres no mention of the starting catcher. I remember Jaso coming up after the season started, replacing Navarro and from watching the game on Sunday it was Shoppach.
    Possible Shields and Jaso don’t work as well as the other two.
    I remember for Bradens perfecto it wasnt Suzuki, rather Powell whom he had worked with a lot – cant remember the amount but following the game Powell said something like he had caught him 40 times in the minors .

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  8. Jed S says:

    It seems like all season, when the Yanks face SPs with plus changeups that have alot of vertical and some horizontal movement, they just fail. Granderson, Tex, A-Rod, and Swisher have all struggled mightily against such pitchers, Tex especially, as he can’t resist those slow pitches that for so long seem to be right down broadway. Shields threw 3 change ups in the exact same spot to strike Teixera out in the 3rd.

    Against even far more inexperienced, less dominant pitchers who possess changeups with alot of movement, they can’t touch the pitcher. Pitchers such as Takahashi and Brett Cecil, for instance, have absolutely immobilized the NYY offense.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    Jed, have you ever heard of any hitter that is described as a “good changeup hitter”? *grin*

    Thrown at the knees with drop, it’s impossible to hit. The reduced speed (picked up too late by the hitter) makes the bat already in front of the ball. The movement just takes the ball further from the bat.

    Great video on ESPN showing just how far ahead of Hellboy’s changeup that Thome was. I was impresses with that kid’s command.

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    • Sandy Kazmir says:

      Nice call CC, Hellickson looked downright Shieldsian. The change isn’t quite as good, but I think his curveball looked better and he seems to spot the FB better. It’s just one start, but I was really enthused with what I saw.

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  10. CircleChange11 says:

    What’s impressed me about the evolution of the CU is that some pitchers have two varieties, one that runs (tails) that they throw to opposite handed hitters (ball moves away from the barrel) and one they throw to same-handed batters that drops.

    Change pitchers that only have the “tailing changeup” are often less effective against same-handed hitters because the ball tails back toward the bat, negating some of the effect. I know Zavada is like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom Glavine was more successful v. RHB than LHB for the same reason.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    To the guys talking about learning the change … When you first start throwing it to a catcher, you’ll know that you have the right arm speed if the first few bounce. Since the hand is wrapped around the ball, you’ll hold on to it longer and “dirt it”.

    If you slow your arm speed, you end up “pushing it” and it’ll stay up. It’s why I usually tell guys to throw it as hard as they can. Much easier to start down and work up than it is to start up and try to work down. Just like when learning the curve, pitchers tend to “baby it” or try to be all pretty about. As soon as pitchers hear “offspeed”, they try to slow it down instead of letting the grip do the work.

    Beat progression of learning pitches, 4-seam, 2-seam, CU, Cutter, Curveball, slider/sinker. My preference is kids don’t throw curves until high school, and sliders wait until high school and even then for only a select few (generally guys with a lower arm slot where a curve is just going to be a ‘spinner’ anyway.

    Rambling about pitching. I’m in my element.

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