Finding The Next Clay Buchholz

It isn’t quite fair to say that Clay Buchholz broke out because of his change-up. In fact, Colin Zarzycki found a much more reasonable explanation and wrote about it in his FanGraphs+ player cap. Buchholz also threw the pitch less than he’d ever thrown it before, so it’s kind of weird to focus on it. But the pitch is pretty excellent, and maybe it could have told us that more swinging strikes were on the way. And if it did tell us that, perhaps we can use that knowledge to spot a couple more pitchers that under-performed in the strikeout category last year.

Take a look at the list of starting pitchers with more than 50 swinging strikes on their change-up, sorted by the rate at which they get whiffs once the batter swings. I’ve added their 2013 strikeout rate for good measure. (Buchholz had 47 swinging strikes, but his .431 whiff rate on the pitch would have been fifth last year.)

Pitcher whiffs/swing 2013 K%
Jarrod Parker 0.4858 16.4%
Stephen Strasburg 0.4667 26.1%
Kris Medlen 0.4549 19.2%
Cole Hamels 0.4398 22.3%
Michael Wacha 0.4155 25.0%
Matt Cain 0.3985 20.8%
Tim Lincecum 0.3982 23.0%
Chris Capuano 0.3972 17.7%
Anibal Sanchez 0.3899 27.1%
Martin Perez 0.3882 15.9%
Gio Gonzalez 0.3855 23.4%
Marco Estrada 0.3785 23.1%
Joe Blanton 0.3754 17.7%
Alex Torres 0.3709 27.4%
Jason Vargas 0.3700 16.9%
Jeff Locke 0.3673 17.6%
Francisco Liriano 0.3667 24.5%
Jered Weaver 0.3505 18.5%
Randall Delgado 0.3475 16.7%
Matt Moore 0.3457 22.3%

Jarrod Parker is a mad-man when it comes to his change-up. But I agree with Brad Johnson — the rest of his arsenal is just not there yet. If he can show great command of his 92 mph sinker and re-discover some of the sizzle that made his slider consistently one of the better breaking pitches in the Arizona system, he’ll have a great year. Those things aren’t crazy. After all, he was drafted for having good command, a major league fastball, and a beautiful slider. Funny how he ended up a shaky-command major leaguer living mostly off his change-up, but that’s life.

Kris Medlen has a fairly long track record at this point — 500+ innings — but he’s also had better strikeout rates than he did last year. He has great control, so at least he has control and a change. Did you know that his curveball gets above average whiffs? He could be a candidate for more strikeouts in the future. After all, 500 innings is really only a couple seasons, and he’s had the wrinkle of being in the bullpen and recovering from arm surgery.

Many of the rest are veterans to the point that we aren’t really looking for breakouts, or are well-respected young pitchers like Michael Wacha. You might be surprised that Chris Capuano and Joe Blanton have such fine change-ups, but in this case, they serve as cautionary tales rather than breakout candidates. But there are a few names that deserve highlighting:

Martin Perez is particularly exciting because he has the pedigree given to him by generous ratings by scouts. The change-up is obviously elite, and he’s never put up great strikeout rates. If he could boost those strikeout numbers to join his decent ground-ball numbers, he could succeed (and I’m talking fantasy-level success here) despite his home park. The problem is that, where Kris Medlen has a nice breaking pitch, neither of Perez’s are any good. His sinker gets a good amount of ground-balls, but his curve and slider both get about *half* the whiffs of an average pitch in their category. He’s really going to have to improve those pitches to break out.

Marco Estrada is already on most sleeper lists, but this is just another reason to love him. You hate him because his four-seamer barely averages 90, and he pitches in a homer-happy park, and has had homer issues his whole career. But you love him because he has a plus change-up, an average curve, and a cutter and four-seamer that get more whiffs than average. Putting his change-up in this sort of context makes him more interesting.

Alex Torres doesn’t have a starting role right now, probably. He went to the Padres in the Great Logan Forsythe Trade of 2014, and even with Cory Luebke out for another year, there are some obstacles in his way. Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson and Tyson Ross seem like locks for the first four spots. Eric Stults is a lefty with under-whelming stuff, yes, but Burch Smith and Robbie Erlin are there in case he breaks or stinks. File Torres away for bullpen waiver-wire work, perhaps — he should be more than a LOOGY with a great change.

Randall Delgado is also in flux. He doesn’t have any more options, so he needs to make the team. But with Bronson Arroyo in town, Delgado looks like the sixth option. Maybe Delgado is more of a stream-starter when he comes in for injury replacement (Brandon McCarthy isn’t the healthiest), or maybe Wade Miley gets worse, again. But I had to put a spotlight on Delgado because I haven’t respected his stuff much in the past, and this means he has at least one really good pitch. And, you know, his curve was a hair above average on whiffs and grounders, too…

Once these pitchers get a batter to swing at their change-up, they are in the driver’s seat. In order to get their swinging strike — and strikeout — rates up, all they have to do is develop a better approach over all. Then batters will *have* to swing at their change-up.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Edgar from MIB
10 years ago

This article put butterflies in my tummy… Thanks for all the great work and for keeping my baseball spirit alive and well during this cold, dark offseason.