The Best Pitches of 2011: Changeup

As a continuation of this week’s Best Pitches of 2011 series, we’ll look at the best changeups from 2011 today. The best sliders (by Chris Cwik) and the best curveballs (coming tomorrow by Paul Swydan) ssummarize the most effective breaking balls in baseball, but changeups are a distinctly different animal. Changeups comprise the majority of an entire subset of pitch types in offspeed pitches, and they are used differently from breaking balls too.

An offspeed pitch is normally intended to fool the batter by coming out of the pitcher’s hand appearing like a fastball, and then — with a Chris Berman WHOOP — it decelerates and drops dead towards the plate. Some changeups have armside fade, others are straight and run 10-15 mph slower than the pitcher’s fastball, and still others hit the floor with combinations of all of the above.

Carson talked earlier in the week about some of the numbers and points of context we considered in this series, and some of what he says about fastballs applies to changeups too, particularly when you consider changeups in the context of pitchers’ repertoires.

So without further ado, here are the best changeups of 2011.

Note: the average movement for a changeup in 2011 was -1.4 X-move and +4.3 Y-move.

Also note: I’ve added another pitch result stat, Whiff%, which is the number of misses per swing (as opposed to SwStr%, which is the number of misses per pitch)

Cole Hamels

PITCHf/x: 24.7%, 83.4 mph, +8.4 X-move, +6.0 Y-move
Results: 72.0% Strike%, 27.1% SwStr%, 46.0% Whiff%, 28.8 wCH, 3.7 wCH/C

Comments: LHP Cole Hamels has the typical fastball/curveball/changeup repertoire, until you realize that he can make his fastball cut or sink any which way he wants to. Whether or not his fastballs (four-seam, sinker, cutter) serve to set up his secondary pitches or the other way around, Hamels had the best changeup in baseball in 2011. Name every pitch result or pitch value stat related to his change, and Hamels is in the top 2 among qualified starting pitchers: 2nd to Roy Halladay in throwing his changeups for strikes (72.0%), 1st in baseball in SwStr% (27.1%), and 1st in baseball in both wCH and wCH/C. That he leads both changeup value categories speaks to both the reliance that Hamels had on his changeup in terms of quantity, as well as the quality of each changeup that he threw on average.

Hamels relied on the changeup much more (34.2% in 2008) a few years ago. Since adding a cutter circa 2010 to his fastball repertoire, Hamels’ changeup has been all the more effective at still a sizable usage (24.7% in 2011). His Whiff% of 46.0% shows how effective his changeup was in getting hitters to miss when they choose to chase. Of any pitch in baseball thrown with at least the same frequency (according to PITCHf/x), the Hamels changeup led every pitch in baseball in both SwStr% and Whiff%.

Video: As you’ll see in the following video, Hamels’ changeup can cause the whifferoo as effectively as it can summon the groundballin’. Even if the hitter made contact, his changeup induced a 66.9% GB rate to righties and a 65.0% GB rate to lefties. Changeup whiffs are at 0:22, 0:27, 0:37, and 0:41, while changeup GBs are at 0:10 and 0:44. Have at it (PITCHf/x game chart for reference):

Jeremy Hellickson

PITCHf/x: 32.3%, 79.9 mph, -4.3 X-move, 6.9 Y-move
Results: 67.4% Strike%, 19.0% SwStr%, 32.8% Whiff%, 17.0 wCH, 1.9 wCH/C

Comments: Of starting pitchers who threw a similar amount of pitches overall, RHP Jeremy Hellickson relied on his changeup (32.3%) the 3rd most in all of baseball, with Chris Narveson and Jeff Francis ahead of him (both of whom accumulated negative changeup pitch values). You would think that professional hitters would eventually figure out the AL Rookie of the Year because he relies on his offspeed pitch so much. Well, not so for the young and handsome Hellboy of Tampa Bay, as his changeup whiffed 32.8% of batters who swung. His straight changeup creeps in at more than 10 mph slower than his low-mid 90s fastball, useful for setting up hitters to swing out in front when expecting the fastball. Though Hellickson is a flyball pitcher, he has gotten his changeup to induce groundballs (42.2%). He used his changeup in all counts, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to throw his changeup with men on base (32.8%).

Video: Here’s a look at Hellickson’s changeup during his 10-strikeout 2011 debut (changeups at 0:22, 0:42, 1:13), though his curveball is fun to watch in this video as well:

Felix Hernandez

PITCHf/x: 22.0%, 89.4 mph, -6.5 X-move, 0.0 Y-move
Results: 70.2% Strike%, 16.1% SwStr%, 26.7 Whiff%, 24.0 wCH, 3.0 wCH/C

Comments: Okay, I regret that James Shields didn’t accompany teammate Hellickson to make the top 3, but RHP Felix Hernandez’s hard changeup is just too good to resist for me. Unlike Hamels at 83.4 mph and Hellickson at an even slower 79.9 mph, Hernandez throws his changeup in the upper-80s. Also unlike Hamels and Hellickson, Hernandez gets good fade on his changeup, as you’ll notice his changeup drop to the floor towards right-handed hitters. That combines well with a seldomly-used slider that moves differently but at a similar 88-89 mph velocity along with a mid-90s sinker. The ability for Hernandez to throw his changeup for strikes (70.2%) and to induce a solid groundball rate (65.5% to RHH and 63.0% to LHH) makes for an effective offspeed pitch.

Video: Here are Hernandez’s changeups in an August game against the Indians (changeups at 0:16, 0:36, 0:43, 0:57 in the dirt, and 1:04). He’s also got a whiff-inducing curveball, which is just as whiffy (28.9%) as his changeup (26.7%) when batters swing:

Other Changeups to Hide Your Kids and Wives From

James Shields: The righty could have easily been in the list above. He threw his changeup 27.6% of the time at about 84 mph on average. With such good sink on it, he whiffed 36.3% of hitters who chose to swing.

Shaun Marcum: Now here’s one of those pitchers who probably couldn’t survive in the majors without his changeup. RHP Shaun Marcum’s fastball runs at less than 87 mph, while his circle changeup is in the high-70s, which he used 26.7% of the time. With good control and good offspeed pitches, Marcum is able to strike out both righties and lefties.

Justin Verlander: Verlander is definitely more well-known for his fastball, but the righty also has a whiffy changeup (36.7%). At 87 mph and used 18.4% of the time, his changeup came at a wCH pitch value of 10.5 runs.

Tim Lincecum: Lincecum might have the most famous changeup of the pitchers listed so far, and while we should expect it to continue being one of the game’s most devastating pitches, his results off the changeup were better in previous seasons when he used his changeup more frequently (dropped from 21.3% to 14.4%). That being said, 39.5% Whiff% is nothing to be ashamed about.

Ricky Romero: The lefty Ricky Romero had one of the whiffiest changeups among starters with 43.2% (4th among starters who used the changeup at least as frequently as he did). At 85 mph, his changeup also accumulated a good total run value with a wCH of 16.2. It’s his favorite and his best secondary pitch.

Ryan Madson: I didn’t include a reliever on this list until now, but RHP Ryan Madson got some serious results with his changeup with a 55.8% whiff rate and 14.9 wCH, both leading all relief pitchers. It’s a changeup that dives down and runs at about 84 mph. As a mostly fastball/changeup combo reliever, he used his changeup as much as anybody in baseball (34.4%).

We hoped you liked reading The Best Pitches of 2011: Changeup by Albert Lyu!

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Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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Shields is a righty.