One of the Best Ground-Ball Pitches in Baseball Isn’t a Sinker

If it weren’t for Adam Engel, Carlos Carrasco would have shut out the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday night. It’s hard to believe something stood out to me more than the preceding sentence’s qualifier, but baseball possesses the quality of unpredictability, and I will never complain.

Carrasco is an artist, mixing five pitches with such care that I often find myself gravitating towards his starts despite my lack of association with the Indians’ fan base. On Wednesday, what I noticed more than Engel ruining a shutout was Carrasco veering away from a pitch vital to his repertoire — his changeup. Due to the graces of BrooksBaseball.net, I can confirm the lack of changeup usage was unusual for Carrasco; five instances of the pitch were his second-fewest in any start this season. Wednesday was the longest outing of Carrasco’s season and matched his season-high “game score” of 89 (50 is average) from a battle back on April 22nd against — you guessed it — the White Sox.

Carrasco’s beauty stems from his ability to execute flawlessly with a game plan contrary to what you would expect. His season averages reflect the bigger picture, yet on a given night he can meander in unprecedented directions. My wonder surrounding the lack of his usual third pitch brought me to another contrarian aspect of Carrasco’s game: this changeup possessed the best ground-ball per ball-in-play ratio of any pitch in baseball (min. 200 pitches). 82% of the time when contact is made between the lines, the batted-ball result of this changeup is a ground ball. With 6% of batted balls falling into the “fly-ball” category, Carrasco’s pitch is one of the hardest in baseball to hit in the air.

Does this make it the best changeup in baseball? That depends on what qualities you believe make a changeup great. Per FanGraphs, Clayton Kershaw — shocker — holds the highest pitch value for a changeup at 6.9 runs per 100 pitches (0.0 is an average offering), with Carrasco just behind him. If you subscribe to limiting line drives as the better indicator of changeup success, the honor would go to Stephen Strasburg, who coincidentally gets the most whiffs per swing on his changeup at 51%. I’m not arguing that Carrasco has the best changeup in baseball; I’m highlighting how absurdly hard it is to do anything but hit Carrasco’s changeup on the ground. That in itself deserves as much attention as one that generates excessive swings, or is throw by the left hand of a legend — I tip my hat to you, Mr. Kershaw.

If you read my most recent recent column on the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy — whom I already consider to be “great” (yeah, pretty bold) — you can tell I’ve become intrigued by the Baseball Prospectus rabbit hole that is pitch-tunneling. In as simple terms as you can get, the “tunnel point” is where the hitter has to decide whether or not to swing, with movement more than 2.6 inches between the tunnel point and home plate considered above-average. The concept is fresh, with only bits of hard evidence for suggesting how to correctly apply the statistic, but one of its beliefs makes intuitive sense. In a vacuum, if your pitch moves more than average beyond the tunnel point, it becomes harder to hit. My thinking with Carrasco’s changeup is simple: it must have a lot of downward, “late” break to force hitters into topping the ball at such a high rate.

Ah, if only baseball was that easy.

Carrasco’s pitch sequence of fastball-changeup is his fourth-most commonly used pitch pair; it doesn’t stand out in terms of post-tunnel break among his other pitch pairings, nor when you compare that break back to the league average for a typical fastball-changeup sequence. What it does stand out on is something called “flight-time differential.” Carrasco’s .0223 is the third-lowest in baseball among pitchers who have thrown a fastball-changeup sequence more than 50 times. This stat is another way to show velocity differences between pitches. The short flight-time differential holds up when we observe Carrasco’s 5.7 mph difference between his average fastball and changeup velocities (fourth-smallest, qualified pitchers).

Good news: this all jives with Harry Pavlidis’ research. Harder changeups with smaller velocity differentials between that pitcher’s fastball means more ground balls, while a larger velocity gap between the two pitches means more whiffs. While ground-ball inducers tend to throw their change earlier in counts, whiff inducers favor the pitch as a put-away offering. While that sentence isn’t all-encompassing, Carrasco’s deviation from conformity continues.

As with most right-handed pitchers, Carrasco tends to throw his changeup to left-handed bats substantially more than right-handed bats, favoring the benefits of arm-side movement a changeup generally possesses due to the pronation of a pitcher’s hand. But unlike conventional thought that suggests the pitch’s ground-ball rate is such that early-count looks are likely, Carrasco throws the pitch more as he gets deeper into counts.

Just as Carrasco plays second fiddle to Corey Kluber in the Indians rotation, his changeup plays second fiddle to his slider, both allowing for rampant underappreciation. The pitch is so good this year that Carrasco has muddied the stigma that high-velocity, or low-velocity differential, changeups should remain early-count offerings. Once again, Carrasco is veering from the path of predictability.

Even after four seasons where progressive improvement hasn’t ceased, due to injuries we still haven’t seen a 200-inning campaign from the righty. 2018 will be his age-31 season, and as father time comes knocking, it’s unfortunate that we may be observing the tail end of Carrasco’s peak performance. With the Indians firmly intertwined with the phrase “playoff bound,” Carrasco will get his first reps on an October mound. If history provides any indication of the future, we know Carrasco will both stand out from him predecessors and succeed.

In regards to an obscure September outing and the lack of changeup usage, digging deeper might unearth logical reasoning, but with Carrasco, I think mystery adds to the legend of an under-the-radar arm.

 

I can be found on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow – tweeting about the greatest of all games.

A version of this post can be found on my website, BigThreeSports.



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Founder of BigThreeSports.com. Writer for Razzball and Viva El Birdos. Host of Two Strike Approach Podcast. Co-Host Razzball Prospect Podcast. Editor in Chief of the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network.

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Lance,

Thank you for sharing your rabbit hole experiences with tunneling. The article is very well written and you explain various concepts in an easy to understand manner. I will watch CC’s next start a bit differently.