Toronto’s Alvarez Abandons Change, Succeeds Harder

See bottom of post for note on what is likely not an abandoned — but, rather, a distinctly harder — changeup.

Here’s an exchange that could very well occur between two mostly knowledgeable baseball fans:

Person No. 1: “A young pitcher whose fastball sits at 92 to 93 mph — and touches around 97 or 98 — struck out seven batters in as many innings yesterday.”

Person No. 2: “I have no reason to doubt it.”

And here’s another, also entirely possible, exchange on a similar theme:

Person No. 1: “Toronto right-hander Henderson Alvarez struck out seven batters in as many innings yesterday.”

Person No. 2: “Remove yourself from my sight, you gutless liar!”

One reason why that first conversation might exist is because many pitchers — like, Aaron Harang, to name one — have struck out seven batters in as many (or fewer) innings this season. Another reason is because pitchers who throw harder also tend to post both more strikeouts and lower xFIPs (a metric informed in no small part by strikeout rate).

The reason why the second conversation might exist is because Toronto right-hander Henderson Alvarez, despite possessing a fastball that sits at 92 to 93 mph — and which touches 97 or 98 — struck out seven batters in a game precisely zero times in his first 38 career starts. His 39th career start — on Wednesday night against the Yankees — marked the end of this streak, as the reader has every opportunity to discern from the following sortable table (which includes Alvarez’s top-10 starts by strikeout rate):

9/19/2012 @NYY 7.0 25 7 28.0% 2.35 1.10
7/16/2012 @NYY 6.0 25 6 24.0% 4.32 5.26
8/26/2011 TBR 6.0 25 6 24.0% 3.99 9.03
9/27/2011 @CHW 7.0 27 6 22.2% 2.21 3.17
8/31/2011 @BAL 8.0 26 5 19.2% 2.09 1.78
9/05/2011 BOS 6.0 22 4 18.2% 3.24 2.19
7/05/2012 KCR 5.1 26 4 15.4% 3.27 2.72
7/28/2012 DET 7.0 27 4 14.8% 4.07 2.81
8/10/2011 OAK 5.2 27 4 14.8% 3.78 4.97
9/10/2011 BAL 7.0 28 4 14.3% 2.85 2.31

So, this thing happened with Henderson Alvarez, and now some of us — and, by “some,” I mean, “like five” — are curious as to how or why it happened.

To understand that sort of thing, we begin — as one does in these situations — by turning our attention to Alvarez’s pitch selection, movement, etc., for his Wednesday start relative to the other ones he’s made.

Here we have Alvarez’s PITCHf/x data (pitch selection, along with horizontal and vertical movement) for the entire season:

And now here we have the same chart, just for his Wednesday start:

Here we find at least two points worthy of comment. First, there’s the matter of classifying Alvarez’s different fastballs. Some are classified by PITCHf/x as two-seamers; others, four-seamers; a few even, cut fastballs. As one can see from the bottom of the two charts, however, the labels given to the pitches do not necessarily reflect the way one might categorize them based on the clusters present — in particular, we find that there are pitches labeled as four-seamers, but which appear to be thrown more similarly to two-seamers. In practice, this is no great problem: for the purpose of this post, at least, the distinction is moot.

The second point is this: while the top chart indicates five different pitches being thrown, the bottom one clearly omits two of them. One of those, the cutter, constitutes less than 1% of Alvarez’s total pitches thrown this season, suggesting that it’s likely a fluke of classification. Alvarez’s changeup, though — a pitch he’s thrown ca. 11% of the time this season and threw ca. 16% of the time last season — is entirely absent.

In fact, upon closer inspection, we find that a trend exists. Here are the 10 career starts in which Alvarez has thrown the changeup least often:

Date Opp IP TBF FA% FT% SL% Other CH%
9/19/2012 @NYY 7.0 25 47.8% 43.3% 8.9% 0.0% 0.0%
8/31/2011 @BAL 8.0 26 83.5% 5.2% 6.2% 5.1% 0.0%
9/13/2012 SEA 7.0 29 50.0% 43.5% 5.6% 0.0% 0.9%
5/10/2012 @MIN 7.0 27 70.3% 5.9% 21.8% 0.0% 2.0%
8/14/2012 CHW 7.0 27 48.8% 33.3% 15.5% 0.0% 2.4%
8/19/2012 TEX 4.1 25 44.1% 28.6% 23.8% 0.0% 3.6%
8/09/2012 @TBR 4.2 27 71.1% 1.2% 21.7% 0.0% 6.0%
5/04/2012 @LAA 9.0 32 28.9% 47.4% 17.5% 0.0% 6.2%
7/28/2012 DET 7.0 27 53.9% 26.9% 12.5% 0.0% 6.7%
7/22/2012 @BOS 5.2 26 68.3% 8.7% 16.4% 0.0% 6.7%

Of the 10 starts here, two of them are from September of this year. Another three are from August. Two occurred in July, as well. All told, seven of Alvarez’s most recent 11 starts — again, out of 39 in his career now — are on this list. He’s throwing the change less, in other words.

The numbers suggest that the trend might be a smart one. Below are Alvarez’s lines for the 10 games during which he threw the change least often, and then the 10 during which he threw it most often.

Ten Games with Lowest CH%
66.2 IP, 271 TBF 32 K, 16 BB, 5 HR, ca. 3.75 FIP

Ten Games with Highest CH%
63.1 IP, 278 TBF, 39 K, 19 BB, 14 HR, ca. 5.40 FIP

The primary difference here is in home-run allowance — something that doesn’t become entirely reliable for pitchers even with 500 batters faced — so we should resist making any strong conclusions about it. Even with regression added in, though, there are more home runs being allowed. Are all those extra home runs coming off the changeup? No. Of the 26 home runs allowed by Alvarez this season, for example, only three (or 11.5%) have been hit off the changeup — a figure almost precisely the same as Alvarez’s usage.

Of course, mysteries abound with regard to pitch sequencing, so none of this strictly rules out the possibility that throwing the changeup has somehow led to home runs. In any case, the pitch has been his least valuable this season on a rate basis (-2.21 runs relative to average for every hundred thrown) by some margin, and we’ve just witnessed Alvarez’s best game coincide with a complete suspension of the pitch.

What’s unusual about Alvarez’s lack of success with the changeup — and, on Wednesday night, the amount of success in its absence — is that the pitch was so roundly praised before the right-hander’s major-league debut. There’s more than one available scouting report that refers to the pitch either as “plus” or even “plus-plus.” In practice, that hasn’t proven to be the case: Alvarez has induced swinging-strikes on only 5.8% of changeups this season, while an average figure would be roughly twice that; an elite one, about four times as much. Moreover, Alvarez has been able to induce a significant percentage of grounders (just 47.7%) of batted changeups, while throwing the pitch for a strike about 13 percentage points below average. Indeed, the pitch could very well have been a plus at some point. For the moment, however, suspending its use seems like an entirely reasonable decision.


As a couple of commenters have noted, it appears that, rather than abandon his changeup, Alvarez threw it much harder than usual on Wednesday — so much so that it appeared like a different pitch. Alvarez has generally thrown the pitch at 85-86 mph. This graph, relabeled in the most amateur of fashions, indicates a changeup more in the 87-91 mph range:

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21 Responses to “Toronto’s Alvarez Abandons Change, Succeeds Harder”

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  1. Hayves says:

    It absolutely seems reasonable, as a big Jays fan I was concerned about the club giving him so many starts. He was striking out so few in 2011, even though he didn’t walk many either. If he could even get above a 7 k/9 he could be a serviceable 3/4 for the Jays.

    Also, I would find those graphs a bit easier to read if FT was the same colour in both. Just a suggestion

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    • Dale says:

      Absurd statement is absurd.

      If he got his K/9 to 7, to go along with his great walk rate (which should continue to go down along with his home run rate; remember, he’s just 22 years old), he would be A LOT MORE than a mere “serviceable 3/4 for the Jays.”

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  2. Woodman says:

    He did throw changeups, they were just thrown harder (~90 mph) and misqualified as fastballs. His actual fastball yesterday was more around 95 mph, and his changeup had less run but more downward movement.

    Quotes from’s Toronto recap:

    Farrell praised Alvarez’s changeup, which he said the 22-year-old is throwing with more conviction. The skipper said it has nothing to with mechanical changes or an alteration to the grip, adding that when Alvarez is throwing the pitch properly, it complements his mid- to upper-90s four-seam fastball and his sinking two-seamer.

    A big part of Alvarez’s refined changeup has been a boost in the pitch’s velocity. Farrell said that when Alvarez is throwing the changeup between 89 and 91 mph, he makes it difficult for hitters to pick up the pitch because it mimics his two-seam fastball but has more bottom-out action.”

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Noted. It appears as though the thing he abandoned was throwing the changeup poorly.

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      • sk says:

        I remember reading an early scouting report on Alvarez last season saying that he actually throws two changeups – perhaps he’s abandoned the slower 83-85 MPH change and focused on this harder change (87-90 MPH) which has splitter movement.

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  3. Greg W says:

    The question arises again and again it seems… how can he possibly be successful 3 times through a lineup with a pitch and a half to work with? And yet, in his best performances, the four-seam/2 seam combo is his most successful. Makes no sense.

    Also, his preference for pitch sequencing is clearly poor. I can recall at least 3 occasions this year when he has shaken off his catcher, and then given up a big hit or homer. The shot of the catcher (both Arencibia and Mathis have done this) pleading or yelling at him in the dugout afterwards about what looks like his poor pitch choice is inevitable. He does not seem to trust his catchers overly much, which might hurt him in a way we would have a tough time measuring.

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  4. Tom says:

    Yup, Anthopolous referred to the impressive changeup he had against the Yanksin his interview at Getting Blanked blog. Pitch FX still clearly has work to be done.

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  5. Josh A says:

    Strange that he did not throw any change-ups (which is also the case according to Brooks Baseball’s pitch classifications), yet in a piece at Sportsnet today by Shi Davidi, his improved change-up is credited for his recent success. I did not see the start in question, but it would seem that perhaps the pitch classifications are off – or this is some sort of elaborate decoy by the Blue Jays.

    “Alvarez, meanwhile, has surrendered just eight earned runs over 20.1 innings during his past three starts, helped in large measure by an improved changeup that more closely mimics the appearance of his fastball out of the hand but is slower with much different action.

    “You look at his changeup that is 89-91 m.p.h., it has about a four-five m.p.h. separation from his fastball, and it looks the same out of his hand to the hitter,” said Farrell. “But it has more bottoming-out action compared to his two-seamer.””


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  6. Makes me curious as to the average standard deviation of fastball velocity on swinging strike fastballs, and which pitchers “reach back” the most for their whiffmakers.

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  7. Matt says:

    Whatever the case may be, maybe I’ll be able to watch him pitch without feeling nauseated now. I haven’t been up to watching him pitch for months.

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  8. lewish says:

    I realize I should know, but FA=fastball, FT= two seam fastball?…FC= cut fastball? Thanks!

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  9. Fitz says:

    I don’t recall Alvarez ever throwing a cutter. I believe Pitch F/X has misclassified a few sliders as cutters, since his slider doesn’t have particularly sharp movement, and he has the tendency to hang it resulting in less movement.

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  10. exxrox says:

    This is a misinformed post, as noted in the first comment. Proof that you didn’t watch the game, because anybody who did (or even read comments from those who did) will note that the biggest difference WAS the effectiveness of his changeup, the thing that he has been sorely lacking this whole season.

    Great writeup on the guy, but try to actually watch the next game you decide to isolate and write up on.

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    • Dale says:

      Haters gonna hate but I’d have to agree. Seems foolish to comment on a pitcher when your assessment is inaccurate due to not watching him pitch.

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      • exxrox says:

        This must have gotten thumbs downed because I ended up repeating what four other commentors already said. For this I apologize, because I wrote the post before reading what everyone else had to say. Because it was noticeable from the home page – literally.

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  11. Brandon T says:

    Hmmm…. change-ups are most often used against opposite-handed batters to help offset the platoon advantage. Call me crazy… but maybe the starts when he used the fewest changes were those when he faced the fewest opposite-handed batters? That should also, in theory, reduce the HR rate…

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  12. Allan G says:

    In his start so far, he’s struck out 4 through 2 innings, though 2 of those are Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis, so take that as you will.

    But he’s exclusively throwing his hard changeup, which is being classified as a fastball but has 2 more inches of break than his regular fastball. Not sure if that’s enough to throw off hitters, but it is so far.

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