June 26, 2013
The Rays' Changeup Revolution
“The game evolves constantly,” Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey tells me on a Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, after wrapping up a bullpen session an hour before first pitch. Evolution in baseball works a lot like it does in real life: traits that confer a competitive advantage tend to be passed on. But before a new approach is adopted around the league, Hickey says, “someone’s going to have to be successful doing it.”
The Rays are often that someone. If the Rays have an identity—aside from their status as a team that doesn’t draw, locked into a lease that never expires—it’s that they do things differently. Driven by their need to make the most of their limited resources and the creativity of their front office and field staff, the Rays under General Manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon have authored a long list of innovations. Shifting more aggressively than almost any other team. Giving defensive specialist Jose Molina a starting job for the first time at age 37. Opening an academy in Brazil. Refusing to sign free agent starters (before Roberto Hernandez). And so on.
One minor innovation Maddon has made hasn’t received much mainstream attention: the manager’s tendency to stack his lineup with same-handed hitters against certain starters, intentionally surrendering the platoon advantage that most teams seek. Dubbed the “The Danks Theory” by Tommy Rancel of DRaysBay, who picked up on it after it was employed against White Sox starter John Danks in 2010, Maddon’s unorthodox tactic is an attempt to deprive opposing pitchers of their nastiest stuff. He’s broken it out against pitchers who throw one of their best offerings almost exclusively to batters who don’t hit from the same side, among them Danks, Mike Mussina, Dallas Braden, Shaun Marcum, Jered Weaver, and Jon Lester. Combat selected righties with righties and selected lefties with lefties, Maddon’s thinking goes, and what you lose in platoon advantage, you more than make up for by eliminating one or more of a pitcher’s most effective options from his arsenal.
More often than not, the Danks Theory is put to the test against starters with good changeups. There’s a reason for that. Traditionally, changeups have been thrown much more often to opposite-handed hitters. “I can remember myself as a minor league pitcher, that was unheard of,” says Hickey, who spent seven seasons in the White Sox, Dodgers, and Astros systems in the 1980s. “You didn’t throw a changeup as a right-handed pitcher to a right-handed hitter.”
The pitchers whom the Rays have deemed susceptible to the Danks Theory still pitch like Hickey did three decades ago; the left-handed Lester, for example, has thrown 93.8 percent of his changeups to right-handed batters this season. But if other teams were to try the Danks Theory, they’d have a hard time turning it against its creators. Most of Tampa’s changeup artists don’t pitch like Lester. Instead, they’re making what Hickey says was once a “taboo kind of pitch”—the right-on-right or left-on-left changeup—into a conventional weapon.
Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last March, Bill James said, “A lot of baseball’s conventional wisdom starts to sound silly when you become 13.” That may be true of many conventional baseball beliefs: closer usage, lineup construction, sacrifice bunts and the intentional base on balls. But while baseball’s loose ban on same-sided changeups is certainly conventional, it’s not entirely unwise. The theory behind it has some stats to support it.
As Dave Allen noted in a 2010 study on pitch-type platoon splits, if a pitcher releases his changeup with roughly the same initial trajectory as his fastball and aims it around the middle of the zone, “the pitch will end up down and away to the opposite-handed batter and down and in to the same-handed batter. All else being equal a down-and-away pitch is much better than a down-and-in pitch.”
Matt Moore, one of the relatively few Rays who throws almost all of his changeups to opposite-handed hitters, concurs. “When you think of lefties, they like to drop the head, it’s more of a sweepy swing,” says the southpaw starter. “The bottom of the zone, for lefties, it’s such a sweet spot. For me, typically where [the changeup] is going to go is down and in to a lefty, down and away to a righty.” Rays catcher Jose Lobaton, who likes the pitch, says, “The only problem people say with the changeup is that righties against righties, if you hang it, they’re going to hit it pretty good. With some lefties…when they hang it they can hit a popup, righties can hit it better. They say the ball moves inside to them.” If you make a mistake, changeups to same-sided hitters can be bad news.
According to Max Marchi’s research, the so-called “straight change” shows a reverse platoon effect: it’s more effective against batters who hit from the opposite side. But what Max called the “power change”—a harder one “with significant lateral movement,” or “movement similar to the fastball”—is platoon neutral: it works well against both righties and lefties.
Despite Max’s study (and others with similar conclusions), there hasn’t been any league-wide movement toward throwing same-sided changeups, at least since the start of the PITCHf/x era.
A little more than one in five changeups has been thrown to a same-sided hitter since the start of last season. Expressed another way, here’s a yearly breakdown of the percentage of pitches thrown to same-sided hitters that were changeups:
But the Rays’ percentage has climbed, on the whole, despite a decline since last season due to the departure of James Shields. (More on that below.)
The Rays’ changeup usage also stands out when we compare them to other teams. Here’s the percentage of Tampa Bay changeups that have been thrown to same-sided hitters from 2011-13, compared to the rest of the top five teams, the bottom five teams, and the average:
And here, for 2013 only, are the top five and bottom five teams in terms of pitches thrown to same-sided hitters that were changeups:
Three of the five pitchers with the highest same-side changeup rates since 2008 (min. 5000 total pitches)—Jeremy Hellickson (no. 1), Fernando Rodney (no. 2), and James Shields (no. 5) are or until recently were Rays. And of the 10 pitchers with the highest same-side changeup rates in 2013 (min. 100 total changeups), nos. 4-8—Rodney, Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Roberto Hernandez—are all Rays. Joel Peralta would also crack that top 10 if his off-speed pitch were classified as a changeup instead of a splitter. And that’s only a partial list of the pitchers with adventurous changeup tendencies and Tampa Bay ties: Joaquin Benoit, Shawn Camp, and Juan Carlos Oviedo (whom the Rays signed in January) belong in the same-sided changeup family, too.
Hellickson, a right-handed starter who throws roughly a third of his changeups to righties, values the element of surprise he gets from deploying the pitch against same-sided hitters. “Not all pitchers do it, so there [aren’t a lot of guys] who are looking for it,” he says. Lobaton agrees. “I think that’s why I like it,” he says. “It’s something hitters don’t know.”
Lobaton lets the his observations about batters dictate when he signals for the same-side pitch. “I think the game tells you what you have to do,” he says. “You see the guy seeing a breaking ball or fastball in, then a fastball away, and then maybe foul, foul, foul. So you want to just do something different, and the changeup is a great pitch.”
Hellickson says there’s no situation in which he doesn’t feel comfortable trying the change. “Any count, any batter, I feel like I have enough confidence to throw a strike with it whenever.” And when Torres—who’s now being entrusted with higher-leverage roles—talks about his changeup, he sounds like he’s reading from the same script. “Right now, the kind of confidence I have in my arsenal and my pitch, I’ve been throwing my changeup any time, any count—3-1, 3-0, I just use that pitch with the lefty when I need it.”
Rays pitchers will even throw the changeup inside to same-sided hitters, which used to be regarded as an automatic mistake. (In his 1995 book Pure Baseball, Keith Hernandez wrote, “The change-up is never thrown purposefully inside. Never.”) So where does this confidence come from? Some pitchers from outside the organization develop it after getting to Tampa Bay; Roberto Hernandez has doubled his same-side changeup usage rate since 2011, his last full season in Cleveland. Others, like Rodney, have it before they arrive.
“When I started throwing that pitch in 2002, a couple friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t throw it to the righty because they’re going to hit it,’” Rodney says. “I said, ‘No, they have no chance to hit it.’ And one [friend] saw me, he told me, ‘Hey, you got a nice changeup. You can throw both sides of the plate, righty, lefty…How do you do that?’” Remembering, Rodney laughs. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s got to be given.’”
With homegrown pitchers, the story is more muddled. Hellickson doesn’t remember being told to throw changeups to same-sided hitters specifically. “They don’t really teach us to throw right-on-right changeups or left-on-left,” he says. “I think it’s just something we kind of developed confidence in along the way.
“I don’t think it’s an organization thing,” he continues. “I just think it’s what we’re comfortable doing and how confident we are in doing it. I’m sure other organizations try to teach it, but their guys can’t do it.”
Talk to the coaches, and the origins of the same-sided change become clearer. “I think the main reason for [the same-sided changeups] is we have a bunch of pitchers who have really good changeups and are confident in them,” Hickey explains. “It’s not like it’s a big secret tactic that we have…If you throw a changeup and the changeup is a pretty good one that has some depth versus run, it’s an effective pitch.”
It’s not that the Rays are stressing the same-sided changeup, specifically. They’re just putting an emphasis on the changeup, period, and when their changeups get good, pitchers get more daring. “We as an organization certainly stress the changeup throughout the course of the player development process, so that helps when they get to the big leagues,” Hickey adds. “They generally have a really good changeup, and they’re confident in it.”
I wanted to know more about that developmental process, so I asked Adam Sobsey, who doubles as a Durham Bulls beat writer, to bring it up with Neil Allen, the Bulls’ pitching coach (and former big leaguer).
“We’ve got a process that, when you hit Double-A, you’ve got to be able to throw your changeup to righties and left-handers, no matter what side you throw from,” Allen told Adam. “It’s become a weapon that we started a few years ago. There were a lot of guys coming to Triple-A that couldn’t throw their changeup for strikes righty-on-lefty or lefty-on-righty. The change is a great pitch if you utilize it [well], but we started getting into the philosophy that if it works opposite arm to opposite hitter, why don’t we start trying it righty-on-righty and lefty-on-lefty?”
Allen says it took him some time to come around, since in his era—also the ’80s—the changeup was used as a situational pitch, not a putaway pitch.* He doesn’t remember who decided to concentrate on changeups, but he does recall how the increased focus came about. “How it started was, ‘We want you to throw 10 to 15 percent changeups tonight.’ And so we’d go on percentages. It would come out as righty-on-righty sometimes to get to the percentage we wanted. We started seeing success left-on-left and right-on-right, and then we started feeding off it more and more.”
*Hickey agrees that changeups have evolved. “You have a lot of guys throwing hybrid-type changeups that aren’t just straight changeups,” he says. “Alex Cobb throws a bit of a hybrid, split-fingered changeup that is still considered a changeup but it has a lot of action to it. I don’t know exactly when or where it [changed], but it did, kind of like the cutter. Twenty years ago or so you really didn’t talk about a cutter, and now everybody talks about a cutter. Almost everybody throws it.”
Both coaches credit Shields for setting a successful example. “I think probably James Shields was more responsible for being the model of that,” says Hickey. “He would pitch inside with a two-seamer and throw a changeup in that same slot…It’s gotten to the point now that I really almost don’t have to talk to them about it. Alex Cobb sees James Shields one start or two starts and he goes over in the outfield and he talks to him and says, “’Hey, what’s the deal?’”**
**If Triple-A starter Merrill Kelly is any indication, the Rays’ farmhands need no further convincing. “In my opinion, it’s the best pitch in baseball,” he told Adam. Kelly came equipped with a changeup when he was drafted in 2010, but High-A Port Charlotte pitching coach Steve Watson encouraged him to throw it more often.
“It just got more dominant with the success that Shields had with it,” Allen confirms. “Shieldsy threw that thing at any time.” Torres gives Shields full credit for his same-sided changeup conversion, remembering that he was hesitant to throw the pitch to lefties before Shields recommended that he add it to his repertoire two years ago. (So far, Shields’ same-sided changeup rate has declined considerably in Kansas City.)
If a Rays pitcher—like Moore or Chris Archer—isn’t throwing the same-sided changeup, it’s either because the pitch still needs refinement or because he simply hasn’t needed it yet. “You’re going to see guys like Chris Archer begin to do the same type of the things,” Hickey says. “His changeup is very conventional right now, and I think you’ll see it evolve into something a little bit more about what we’re talking about…If he comes to the big leagues and he doesn’t need that, you don’t give it to him yet.”
Whatever the Rays are doing, it’s working. It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of a particular pitch type, since so much depends on sequencing. But although the Rays have thrown more changeups than any other team this season (over 20 percent of all pitches)—and a higher percentage to same-handed hitters—their changes have induced the highest swing rate (58.1 percent), the fourth-lowest hit-on-swing rate (10.3 percent), the second-highest foul rate (33.3 percent), and the sixth-highest whiff rate (32.4 percent).
Maddon, who knows how to exploit other teams’ reluctant to embrace a new kind of changeup, likes what he sees from his own staff. “It’s just like front-door breaking balls become more conventional for guys that can actually pull it off,” he says. “From our perspective, we just do a lot of research and a lot of work, and if a guy can execute that pitch, it would be a rather good pitch. I just think it was a conventional wisdom moment that was taught, to not be able to do that. And then you say, well, why can’t you do something like that? It would actually be very effective. So it’s pretty much not paying attention to what had happened in the past and believing that we could do that going forward.”