The Change: Standout Pitches

Most of you know that I love tracking pitches as if they were players. Jeurys Familia‘s slider just got overtaken by the one by thrown by Sergio Santos in whiff rate! David Robertson‘s knuckle curve is now number one in the game by whiffs, not Craig Kimbrel’s! With at least 20 balls in play, no pitch has a bigger grounder rate than the sinkers by Javier Lopez, with Chad Qualls, Charlie Morton, Brad Ziegler and Brad Hand rounding out the top five.

Anyway, I fired up my favorite query for you, and thought I’d point out some notable pitches.

Slider
Sonny Gray (191 thrown, 26.7% whiff rate)
We all know about Gray’s velocity and beautiful yakker, but he’s been looking for a third pitch for a while now. The 34 pitches registered as changeups for Gray have been pretty meh (9% whiffs, four grounders out of six balls in play), but the slider has taken off. It’s currently showing the best whiff rate in baseball among starters, even. Corey Kluber (26.1%) is second, and Max Scherzer (25.2%) follow him. You wouldn’t have guessed that going into the season. No matter what system you use, Gray’s throwing the slider twice as often as he ever has, and it has more horizontal and vertical movement than it ever has. Paired with my research on short pitchers, it appears that any worry about Gray’s career was probably misplaced.

Rubby de la Rosa (123 thrown, 22.8% whiff rate)
We’ve written about Rubby some, but just wanted to put his new slider in context. It sits right below the ones thrown by Tyson Ross and Jimmy Nelson on one side, and Gerrit Cole and Ian Kennedy on the other side. He hasn’t thrown nearly as many, but it’s still impressive. Cole deserves a bit of love right here, too. His slider usage is up, and with it the whiff rate on the pitch (22.7% this year). He’s an ace.

Raisel Iglesias (94 thrown, 22.3% whiff rate)
So Iglesias might still have an issue with holding his velocity… look at how it fell off after his 81st pitch in his last start out.

speed.php-pitchSel=628452&game=gid_2015_05_30_wasmlb_cinmlb_1&batterX=&innings=yyyyyyyyy&sp_type=1&s_type=&league=mlb&pnf=&zlpo=&cache=1

But the good news is that his slider is a top-ten pitch among sliders, and his changeup also has a whiff rate over 20%. No reason to believe his BABIP has to be crazy bad, and the only thing left to watch is his ability to retain velocity late in games. There’s no other red flags at least.

Chris Archer (407 thrown, 21.1% whiff rate)
Let’s focus on that first number for once. Archer has thrown more sliders than anyone in baseball not named Tyson Ross. And Collin McHugh (388) and Madison Bumgarner (361) behind him call their pitches cutters. That leave Corey Kluber (326) and Michael Pineda (323) as the next sliders on the list. So, it’s a lot of sliders. He’s 26 and has been mostly healthy in his career, and it’s leading to the best season of his career, but it’s a lot of sliders.

Curveball
Clayton Kershaw (157 thrown, 23.6% whiff rate)
The weirdest thing about writing about what makes a great curveball — other than the Dodgers admitting that my piece alerted them to the presence of Mike Bolsinger and his curve — was that Clayton Kershaw’s uncle charlie didn’t make my leaderboards in that piece. Kershaw’s absence was noted. But now the lefty has added an inch of drop and slowed the pitch down, and it’s the best curve whiff rate in the game, bar none. Nothing to worry about here.

Brett Cecil (89 thrown, 21.3% whiff rate)
Keone Kela (104 thrown, 21.1% whiff rate)
Look at third and fourth on the curve ball list, when sorted by whiff rates, and you’ll see two interesting relievers. Cecil has his velocity almost all the way back to where it was last year, when he was one of the best relievers in the game. And though his curve has fallen from atop the list, it’s still in the top five by whiffs. He represents a decent buy low. And though Shawn Tolleson isn’t really scuffling, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a decent reliever in that pen behind him. Kela pairs 95 mph gas with a great curveball, and for now at least, he’s showing good command.

Trevor Bauer (81 thrown, 19.8% whiff rate)
It’s fairly tough to pick out what Bauer is throwing, and it looks like he’s throwing the curve a little bit less often this year. Point is, it’s a great pitch. And with a slider that’s traditionally been average or better (and is better than average this year), Bauer doesn’t even really need a changeup. His splitter and change — if they are different — are both above average by whiff rates this year too, though (and are showing more movement than ever before, too). I’ll be adding my rankings to the consensus rankings at pitcher this week, and you’ll see that I believe in Trevor Bauer.

Cole Hamels (132 thrown, 18.9% whiff rate)
Matt Harvey (129 thown, 14.7% whiff rate)
The rich get richer.

Changeup
Danny Salazar (180 thrown, 25.6% whiff rate)
Only Cole Hamels has thrown 150 changeups and recorded a better whiff rate than Danny Salazar. If only Salazar had Hamels’ command. Still, this guy’s stuff is so superlative that it looks like he’ll excel even with an iffy home run rate. And in leagues where strikeout rate is emphasized — leagues with innings limits or K/9 as a category — he’s immediately a top 15-20 option. Sit him in homer parks if need to.

Marco Estrada (229 thrown, 23.1% whiff rate)
One of these years, Estrada is going to throw more changeups than fastballs. He’s throwing the change more often than ever before, and it’s still getting as many whiffs as ever. Admit it, you’re surprised that Estrada has the fourth-best changeup among starters by whiff rate. But if you look at his overall line, you can see he’s doing the same thing as ever — showing a great whiff rate, a decent walk rate, a low BABIP… and a turrible home run rate. Here’s what’s crazy… what he’s doing now looks utterly sustainable when seen in this light. Of course, it’s of borderline worth in many leagues, but the deeper you go, the better Estrada looks.

Miguel Gonzalez (124 thrown, 22.6% whiff rate)
So after years of overperforming his peripherals, it looks like Miguel Gonzalez has improved his peripherals to match his overall numbers. He’s showing his career best strikeout rate, based on a career best whiff rate, which is based on improvement in this top-ten changeup. Maybe it’s unfair to compare this change to others, it’s probably a splitter, but it’s still improved. Even among splits, this pitch has gone from average to plus in one year. It’s not moving differently than last year, though, so this must be a result of a change elsewhere. Could be, throwing the curve a little bit less often has left hitters less prepared for his low-80s split change. And since his fastball has two inches of rise over the average fastball, and he has a top pop-up rate in baseball, we can start to believe his career BABIP (.262). You know what? This guy is pretty good.

Nick Martinez (107 thrown, 21.5% whiff rate)
Sometimes you pigeonhole a guy and forget to update your appraisal regularly enough, and then you hear people talking about a guy you’ve sorted as a Innings Eater and then you stumble on a stat that makes you remember that it’s about time to update your appraisal again. Martinez always had a decent changeup, but last year it was basically average by whiffs and now this year it’s a top ten pitch among starters. All of this without much of a change to the pitch — if anything, it’s flatter and the difference in velocity has narrowed. Martinez is throwing his two-seam fastball more this year, so maybe the change is benefitting from looking like his sinker. He’s still got that average slider, but — maybe because of the sinker — he’s not turning average whiffs into average strikeouts. Problem is, his ground-ball rate is also short of average. There’s average stuff here, maybe more if this changeup situation is real, but the standard peripherals (K/swSTR/GB) don’t paint the picture of someone that should change my appraisal all that much.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Standout Pitches by Eno Sarris!

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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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Surprised to see James Shields’ change didn’t make the cut. Or any of Carlos Carrasco’s pitches…