Marco Estrada Has Maybe the Changiest Changeup

It’s right there in the name. Change-up.

It’s right there in all the names, really. The best fastballs, usually, go the fastest. The best curveballs, usually, curve the most. The best changeups, then, would change the most. That property — change — isn’t quite as intuitive as the first two, but really, in a good changeup, you just want difference. You want separation from the primary pitch.

As my colleague Eno Sarris wisely pointed out on Twitter last night, measuring the characteristics of a changeup, on its own, is a mostly useless endeavor. If the main purpose of a changeup is to give hitters a different look off the fastball, don’t you also need the characteristics of that fastball to give context to the change?

On the surface, Marco Estrada’s repertoire might not be eye-popping. He doesn’t throw hard. He doesn’t have great movement. But what he does have, is this:

Largest Velocity Gaps, Fastball vs. Changeup
Player FB Velocity CH Velocity Velocity gap
Marco Estrada 89.9 79.1 -10.7
Erasmo Ramirez 92.1 81.8 -10.3
Chase Anderson 92.6 82.4 -10.2
Jeremy Hellickson 91.2 81.2 -10.0
Rick Porcello 92.7 82.9 -9.8
Jacob deGrom 95.8 86.2 -9.6
Andrew Cashner 96.2 86.7 -9.5
Max Scherzer 94.8 85.4 -9.4
Chris Archer 96.2 86.8 -9.3
Johnny Cueto 93.3 84.0 -9.3
Yordano Ventura 97.1 88.0 -9.1
SOURCE: baseballprospectus.com
*Right-handed starters
*Minimum: 500 four-seam fastballs (83)
*Minimum: 200 changeups (60)

On average, Estrada drops nearly 11 mph off his four-seam fastball with every changeup, giving him the largest difference of any right-handed starter in baseball. But we can take this a step further! There can be more to getting separation than just speed. There’s movement, too.

The best fastballs, usually, have good “rise.” When we talk about rise, we’re not talking about literal rise, of course, but instead the ability to resist gravity with backspin. The best changeups, usually, have good drop. Estrada’s four-seam fastball has the most “rise” of any starting pitcher in baseball. The changeup doesn’t have particularly great drop, but given the fastball’s rise in confluence with the velocity gap, there’s still a pretty good package here.

Now, follow along with me. I wanted to put this all into one number — “this” being the difference between the characteristics of a pitcher’s fastball and his changeup. So, for every righty that threw at least 500 four-seams and 200 changeups this year, I calculated the difference between the velocity, the vertical movement, and the horizontal movement of the pitches. Then, I calculated z-scores of each characteristic, and summed the absolute values. It’s an inexact science, definitely. But, point is: it’s going to reveal pitchers whose changeups are most different from their fastball, and the results were pleasing.

The particular numbers aren’t really important. What’s important is that the study produced a leaderboard, and the top of the leaderboard looks like this:

  1. Zack Greinke
  2. Carlos Carrasco
  3. Jeremy Hellickson
  4. Chase Anderson
  5. Johnny Cueto
  6. Sonny Gray
  7. Marco Estrada

In Greinke, Carrasco, Cueto and Gray, you’ve got four ace-caliber pitchers, all known for their changeups, to some extent. In Hellickson and Anderson, you’ve got two pitchers of a lesser caliber, but two pitchers who are only known for their changeups, if anything. And then there’s Marco Estrada, who is soon to be known for his changeup, if he isn’t already.

Before we get into the in-game application of Estrada’s changeup in last night’s dominant start against Kansas City, the last piece of the puzzle I want to put together is release point. Separation between a fastball and a changeup is only useful if the batter thinks he’s getting a fastball. If he knows the changeup is coming, then he doesn’t have to think about the fastball, and the separation is rendered useless. The fastball and the changeup need to be coming from the same place, so the batter can’t anticipate.

This is laughable:

Estrada_FBCHrelease

These are consecutive pitches in the first inning to Lorenzo Cain. Would you be surprised to learn the changeup produced a swinging strike that made Cain look downright silly?

The key here is the arm action. Anyone could throw a changeup 11 mph slower than his fastball if he just lobbed it in there. But by lobbing, rather than throwing at maximum effort, you’re not going to come close to producing the same release point. That’s what makes Estrada’s change so effective. Focus on the arm in the .gif above, and how hard Estrada snaps it forward relative to how slow the ball actually comes out. It’s almost cartoonish.

The arm moves just as fast whether Estrada’s throwing a fastball or a changeup. Equal arm action leads to an equal release point. The pitches come out of the same place, at the same arm speed, but behave in drastically different ways once thrown — moreso than nearly any pitcher in baseball, as revealed above.

A relevant note, from last night:

In that one way, Estrada’s changeup was as good last night as it’s been all season. Or, rather, the changeup, paired with the fastball, were as good as they’ve been all season, together.

You hear about a pitcher’s ability to “keep hitters off balance.” Last night, Estrada was keeping hitters off balance all night with his changeup, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given literally all the information provided thus far in this post. But in order to take advantage of all that’s been written above, you’ve still got to play the fastball and the changeup off one another.

Pitch sequencing is a thing we haven’t been able to quantify yet, but of course, it matters. Every pitch plays off the pitches thrown before it, and helps lead to the rest. Of Estrada’s 10 swinging strikes on the changeup, seven were preceded by a fastball, and two came on the first pitch, when a hitter would likely be expecting the fastball.

Given all that we now know, let’s see how Estrada works.

In third inning, a 3-0 fastball to Mike Moustakas, spotted on the outer edge:

Followed immediately by a changeup in the same spot, but lower, and with 9 mph taken off:

The next pitch was another fastball for a swinging strike three.

In the fourth inning, it’s Cain, again, and this time we get to see the set-up pitch. It’s a fastball, up and away. The exceptional rise on Estrada’s four-seamer allows him to work effectively up in the zone, despite his lack of velocity:

Followed immediately by a changeup in the same spot, but lower, and with 10 mph taken off:

We’ll take a look at one more. Here, we’ve got Kendrys Morales, in the eighth inning, even in the count at 1-1. He takes a fastball, spotted low:

Followed immediately by a changeup in the same spot, but lower, and with 12 mph (!) taken off:

There’s been some doubt surrounding Marco Estrada’s success this year, and that’s not too surprising. Just last year, he had one of the worst seasons in baseball, and just this year, he ran a .216 BABIP, one of the lowest figures in modern history. Obviously, a .216 BABIP isn’t sustainable, because it’s an outlier. Obviously, a .216 BABIP comes with a good deal of luck. But, look at some of the other names on that list. Nobody lucks their way entirely to a .216 BABIP. With any extraordinarily low BABIP, there’s going to be some manner of contact management present. To run a low BABIP, you’ve got to generate soft contact. To generate soft contact, you’ve got to keep hitters off balance. Last night, Marco Estrada proved to the world that, when the fastball and the changeup are on, he can keep hitters off balance with the best of them. Really, it’s just what he’s been doing all year.

We hoped you liked reading Marco Estrada Has Maybe the Changiest Changeup by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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marc Nolan
Guest
marc Nolan

hey august,

what are the closest comparables to estradas changeup?

StroShow
Member

I bet it has something to do with Stroman, aka me.

Ok, I’m not actually serious, but I do have great pitch comps.