The title of this article sounds rather silly, doesn’t it? If CC Sabathia threw only changeups for the rest of his career, well, let’s just say that there would be no CC Sabathia in the league anymore. His first baseman would get fed up when CC continually fielded drag bunts and threw changeups over to first, with the runner beating the throw by just a half-step. His long toss partner would get fed up when CC stopped feet shorter than usual because his changeup throws just weren’t making it the same distance his four-seam throws used to travel. Oh, and his organization would get fed up when hitters continued to blast CC’s offerings around the park because they knew what was coming.
Sure, I was joking…well, exaggerating is the more accurate term, actually. But what if CC Sabathia threw more changeups? Like, what if he threw a lot more? The theory behind this idea has existed as long as there has been more than one different type of pitch in baseball. Pitchers should throw their best pitches the most often. It makes perfect sense in theory — so why don’t more pitchers do it?
And that is something for which I don’t quite have the answer. Collin McHugh, with his career dangerously close to being over, was finally picked up by the Astros, where he was told something very simple: Your fastball is bad; your breaking balls are good. Throw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls. And do you know what happened? He turned into a more-than-serviceable pitcher overnight. More recently, Rich Hill reinvented himself when he realized that he should throw his curveball more often because it was by far his best pitch. He currently leads the majors in curveball percentage and would lead the majors in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify.
CC Sabathia currently throws his changeup about once every nine pitches. That means that in the average inning, he throws it just once or twice. But what if he threw the pitch about thrice every ten pitches? And I can already hear your arguments forming now.
1) “The more often a pitcher throws a pitch, the less effective it becomes. Pitch game theory, blah blah blah…”
This is probably valid. But as I will explain in a second, the results are so favorable from Sabathia’s current changeup usage that the diminishing returns would almost certainly be offset by the positive disparity between his changeup and all of his other pitches.
2) “The changeup is the only pitch in baseball whose effectiveness is primarily based off of another pitch (the fastball). In terms of pitch over-usage, the changeup can’t be abused in the same way that a fastball or breaking ball could.”
If you ever watched Johan Santana pitch when he was in his prime, then you know this is just blatantly untrue. Santana used to triple or quadruple up on his changeup, and the opposing hitter still couldn’t do anything with it. Now, I’m not comparing Sabathia’s change to Santana’s, but the idea is that the pitch itself isn’t solely dependent on the expectation of a fastball. Hitters are calibrated to a certain expectation of velocity based on the arm speed, so even if they aren’t expecting a fastball, a changeup with fastball arm speed is still inherently deceptive. In addition, changeups often have more sink and armside run than the corresponding fastball.
In fact, here is the list of pitchers over the last ten years that have sported a changeup usage of at least 30 percent over a full season:
That doesn’t look like too bad of a list to me. (Side note: check out Tom Glavine’s insane 45 percent changeup usage in 2007!) For reference, the aggregate ERA of this list is 3.58, and they averaged 192 innings per season. Now, of course ERA isn’t perfect, and 30 percent was a rather arbitrary cutoff, but the point here is that pitchers can be successful while spamming their changeup button.
3) “The changeup is naturally very platoon-dependent, so the increase in usage would likely only come against hitters from one side of the plate.”
There are two counterarguments to this. The first is that the best changeup artists use the pitch against hitters from both sides of the plate, as Glavine made famous. In fact, if you look at the above list, almost every one of those pitchers uses their changeup heavily against same-handed hitters as well.
The other argument is that Sabathia doesn’t need a ton of help against lefties anyways, as he’s holding them to a .218/.324/.374 line with a 23.8 percent strikeout rate.
Forgive me for burying the lede a bit here, but I still haven’t articulated just how good Sabathia’s changeup has been so far this season. According to Pitch F/X, 75 plate appearances have ended in a CC Sabathia changeup in 2016, and batters are hitting .206/.270/.221 in those 75 PA. That’s a .491 OPS against. That’s an ISO of .015. How, exactly, does one allow an ISO of .015? Well, believe it or not, Sabathia has allowed just one extra-base hit on his changeup all season — a double. That’s one double, zero triples, and zero home runs in 75 plate appearances.
Batters aren’t getting extra base hits off of the pitch because they’re beating it into the ground, as it’s pretty difficult to hit a groundball out of the park. According to Brooks Baseball, Sabathia has allowed a groundball rate of 66.2 percent on his changeup this season. And that only accounts for when hitters even put the pitch in play; Sabathia also generates a 16.0 swinging strike percentage on his change.
Sabathia has been especially good in his last seven starts, posting a 2.57 ERA while facing the Orioles twice (once in Baltimore), the Dodgers, and the Red Sox and Blue Jays in Boston and Toronto respectively. Over that seven-start stretch, Sabathia has generated a preposterous 80.0 percent groundball rate on his change. It’s hard to fathom, but during this stretch, four out of every five changeups put into play have been on the ground.
In each of the last three seasons, Sabathia’s changeup has allowed the lowest OPS out of all of his pitches, so it isn’t like this is a one-year fluke, either. This is simply a high-quality pitch that isn’t being utilized enough. Or, if you’re more of a visual learner, here is video of Sabathia absolutely flummoxing Yasiel Puig on a full count change-piece.
Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense for Sabathia to start doubling or tripling his changeup usage, as it would likely elevate him from a groundball pitcher to an extreme groundball pitcher. Looking at his stat line, a high home run rate is really what’s separating him from being an above-average pitcher this season, and an increase in changeup usage should help alleviate that, should the trends hold true over the larger sample.
And the sabermetric principles seem to back up Sabathia’s changeup results. There was a Fangraphs study a while back that showed an extremely high correlation between faster changeups and more grounders, and slower changeups with more fly balls. And because Sabathia’s average changeup is just 6.6 mph off of his average fastball, his qualifies as a fast changeup. Unfortunately, though, despite a high whiff rate on his changeup, an increased usage probably won’t lead to more strikeouts.
With Sabathia’s 2017 option likely vesting, and the Yankees probably out of the playoff hunt, it wouldn’t hurt to experiment in Sabathia’s last start. It isn’t like anyone’s asking him to change anything (ha…get it? Change?), like tweaking mechanics or adding a new pitch. This is simply an experiment in pitch usage. Make sure CC throws at least one-third of his pitches as changeups in his last start, and if it works, hey, maybe the Yankees have a brand-new pitcher on their hands for 2017.
Photo: Dan Hamilton / USA Today Sports