Mat Latos cannot pitch in April. Latos will take the mound Wednesday hoping he can overcome his early season struggles. In 70.2 April innings, he has a career 5.21 FIP. For whatever reason, it takes Latos a couple of starts before he settles into his rhythm each year. In order to prevent a slow start this year, Latos has worked on honing his change-up during the spring. Latos has been working with former Reds’ pitcher Mario Soto, who had one of the game’s best change-ups for a little over a decade. If Latos can make progress with the pitch, it could help him get back to his 2010 numbers.
“I’ve had a crappy changeup for my whole career,” Latos told Cincinnati Enquirer‘s C. Trent Rosecrans this March. Latos may have said that, but it’s not entirely true. In 2010, Latos’ change-up was actually a pretty decent third pitch. Latos actually talked about being in an identical situation just before the 2009 season. He told MLB.com’s Corey Brock that he worked on nothing but change-ups during the offseason, saying “I probably threw 1,000 changeups so now I’m a lot more comfortable with it and can use it when I want.” This is starting to sound eerily similar.
Latos’ practice paid off back then. Between 2009 and 2010, Latos’s change-up comprised about 10.5% of his repertoire. The pitch wasn’t useful during his first season, compiling a -3.8 pitch type. The following year, his change-up had a 6.8 pitch type. For some reason, Latos stopped relying on throwing the pitch the last two seasons. His usage declined to 6.4% in 2011, and 4.5% last year. In Latos’ defense, the pitch was pretty awful last season, with a -4.5 pitch type.
If Latos is serious about his commitment to the change-up this offseason, it could turn back into a useful weapon. Latos hasn’t shown huge platoon split issues, but lefties have hit him better over his career. Lefties have a .302 career wOBA, while righties have a .270 wOBA. Change-ups typically show a reverse split, meaning it can help a righty neutralize a lefty. The only season in Latos’ career in which lefties have hit for a lower wOBA than righties was, not coincidentally, 2010.
Aside from Latos’ comments, there’s no way to prove how much he worked on his change this spring unless you saw the games. The only game we have PITCH f/x data for was an early March 1 start. Latos only tossed 29 pitches, three of which were change-ups. It’s foolish to try and analyse a three-pitch sample, so that game doesn’t help too much. If Latos has seriously been working on his change, it could explain his poor 5.49 ERA this spring.
This does give us something to watch for with Latos on Wednesday. We’ll get our first look at how much he’s willing to use the pitch now that his stats matter. Latos is an above-average pitcher whether he uses the change-up or not, so this isn’t a desperate situation. As he showed in 2010, the change-up can make him a better pitcher. Overcoming his usual April slump would be one thing, but having another weapon against lefties for the entire season is far more important. If the change-up can become a useful pitch again, Latos could be in for slight resurgence.