How Far Can Nick Tropeano’s Changeup Take Him?

I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about Mike Foltynewicz for awhile now, seeing as he’s an absolute flamethrower and everybody likes a prospect who can light up the radar gun. Unfortunately, that excuse has yet to surface, as Foltynewicz is having one of those seasons that is neither good nor bad enough to warrant a full-length write-up.

On the other hand, I didn’t come into the season with any plans to write about Foltynewicz’s Triple-A teammate Nick Tropeano. After occupying the No. 10 spot on Houston’s Top 15 Prospects list last year, Tropeano failed to make this year’s list. I suspect this has little to do with Tropeano’s own development and more to do with the addition of guys like Mark Appel and Josh Hader to the system, along with Vincent Velasquez’s return from Tommy John surgery, etc.

The 23-year-old Tropeano was the Astros’ fifth-round pick in 2011 after a fantastic career at Stony Brook. At 6’4″, 201 pounds, Tropeano has the build of an innings eater, and he has certainly lived up to that expectation thus far — he threw 146.1 innings between college and Low-A in 2011, followed by 158 frames in 2012, 133.2 last year and 87 so far this season.

The knock on Tropeano as a prospect is that his repertoire doesn’t seem like the type that would generate whiffs at the higher levels. He locates his fastball well, but the pitch is a low-90s offering without a whole lot of life. He throws some sort of slurvy breaking ball that doesn’t make much of an impression. He’s got a decent splitter, but it basically just looks like a slightly faster version of his changeup to me.

Oh, but that changeup. Tropeano’s change is a beast of a pitch. It looks just like the fastball coming out of his hand, but then it just dies. It’s an easy plus offering at present, with plus-plus potential, and it is almost equally devastating to both lefties and righties. Even a simple look at his splits tells you a great deal about how deadly the right-hander’s change is:

  • vs L – .149/.224/.298
  • vs R – .237/.282/.349

But still, how much projection can one responsibly place on a pitcher who is essentially a fastball-changeup guy? The expectation, and a reasonable one at that, was that Tropeano’s strikeout numbers would fade as he advanced through the minors, leaving him as a pitch-to-contact No. 4/5 starter, or even as a bullpen arm.

While his strikeout rate has indeed fallen as Tropeano has advanced to the high-minors, it’s still considerably higher than anyone expected — he struck out 8.75 batters per nine innings last year in Double-A, and is sitting at 8.38 K/9 this season in Triple-A. Even more encouraging is the steady improvement in his walk rate, which has declined from 3.54 BB/9 in Low-A in 2011 to a tidy 2.28 BB/9 in Triple-A this year.

As I mentioned before, Tropeano’s arsenal doesn’t have a ton of variety, but one thing that stands out to me is how well he mixes his fastball, change and splitter. All three look very similar coming out of his hand; one stays relatively straight in the low-90s, the bottom falls out of another around 80 mph and the third lies somewhere in between. When he’s commanding his pitches, as he has been pretty much all season, he’s quite difficult for hitters to read.

The more I see Tropeano pitch, the more I like him, and the higher I see his ceiling. He only has one plus pitch, but it’s so good that I’m not sure the rest of his stuff has to be any better than average — the constant threat of seeing that changeup allows the rest of his arsenal to play up a bit by default.

It took me a while to warm up to how good I think Tropeano can be. I’ve always heard that his ceiling is that of a back-of-the-rotation starter, but I really don’t think that’s the case anymore. He’s certainly not a future ace, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set his ceiling as a mid-rotation guy. To be clear, his floor is still that of a reliever, but I could see him developing enough to be a solid No. 3 starter if everything goes right.

How far can one plus, or even plus-plus, pitch carry a guy? That’s a question I’m not sure I have the answer for. Is his lack of a quality breaking ball going to be an Achilles’ heel in the majors? It’s entirely possible. I do know that what I’ve seen from Tropeano this year isn’t just luck, .240 BABIP be damned. Whether he can do the same thing to major-league hitters that he has at every other level is uncertain, but at some point, we have to start taking seriously a guy with a 3.15 ERA in 432 minor-league innings.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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