Nobody ever said pitching at Coors Field was easy. Should you go all in on getting groundballs, which will keep the ball in the yard but leave you at the mercy of the BABIP gods? Do you go for power pitching to keep the balls in play as few as possible, but at the cost of giving up more home runs and extra-base hits? What pitches do you throw, knowing spin-based movement gets harshly reduced thanks to the thin air? How about recovery?
One of the interesting things about the way the Rockies have answered these questions, at least since 2017, has been the lack of changeups. Let’s talk about changeups, some of the myths around them, the way the Rockies use that very important pitch, and which Rockies hurlers would (in my humble opinion) benefit the most from throwing more cambios.
Busting Myths About Changeups
The changeup has been around since forever, and the idea behind it is the idea behind pitching as a whole: fooling the batter and getting him off balance. A good changeup is the great equalizer, and I’m sure you can think of many greats who threw incredible ones -Pedro Martínez, Greg Maddux, Johan Santana, Tom Glavine, etc. Pitching has become more of a science in the last few years, but changeups remain a relative mystery when compared to other pitch types.
Let’s get this out of the way first: throwing a good MLB-caliber changeup is very difficult, more difficult than a breaking ball, and it’s even more complicated for me to say exactly what makes a great changeup, because there are many ways for a cambio to be good. If you want proof of changeups being more difficult to throw than breaking balls, by the way, think about it this way: how many single-inning relievers (pitchers with simplified arsenals, often just two pitches) throw a lot of changeups as part of their mix? Now, how many of those throw sliders? There you go.
There are definitely a few things I can say about changeups, how they work and their benefits, but nothing you haven’t heard before. So let’s get rid of a few myths about changeups instead:
- Changeups work against opposite-handed hitters... but they can also work against same-handed hitters. One of the main ideas you may have about changeups is that you should mostly throw them against batters who have the platoon advantage. So if you’re a righty pitcher and you have a changeup, keep that thing around mostly for lefty hitters and put it in your back pocket against righties. Except, that’s not really true. Not all the way, at least. Over the past two seasons, right-on-right changeups have generated a .227/.294/.393 slash line against, and right-on-left cambios have a .231/.277/.370 slash line against. The changeup is a better pitch when you have the platoon advantage, but it’s not useless if you don’t, and if you have a good one you should not hesitate to throw it.
- Less changeup velocity is not neccesarily better. There is virtually zero correlation between changeup velocity and changeup effectiveness, both in terms of contact quality and swing and miss rate. There is, however, a pretty strong (and logical) correlation between changeup velo and launch angle against. As you can see in the chart below (X axis is Changeup Velo per team, Y axis is Launch Angle against said changeups), the harder you throw a changeup, the more groundballs you can expect. If you throw softer changeups, expect more balls hit in the air. That would mean that, just like with a breaking ball, throwing your change as hard as possible is better in a vacuum if you can maintain movement on it.
- Good changeups come in all shapes and velocities. The thing that matters the most about a changeup is how well it fools hitters and how well it tunnels with a fastball. Therefore, raw movement is just one part of the equation, and while there are some marks you can look to hit in terms of separation between heater and cambio (14 inches being the main one), it’s also possible to have too much separation, and that goes for velocity separation as well. In fact, if you look at the leaderboard for 2022’s most effective changeups, you couldn’t get a bigger variety of pitches. You have hard, 90+ MPH changeups like Sandy Alcántara and Edward Cabrera’s, and soft, parachute cambios like Zach Davies’.
Changeup Blues for Colorado
Now we get into the Rockies themselves. Since the start of 2017, the Rockies have thrown less changeups than all but only a few teams. Only 9.2% of their pitches from 2017-2022 have been changeups, which ranks 26th in baseball. This year it’s been an even lower percentage, at 8.2%. And it’s not a case where the Rockies are not throwing a good pitch for no reason.
- Opposing hitters have slashed .306/.351/.484 against Rockies changeups in 2022. That is a .360 weighted on-base average (wOBA), worst in baseball (tied with the Reds). Their .351 expected wOBA is the worst in MLB, this time well ahead of second-worst Washington at .339.
- Colorado has the worst strikeout rate on changeups in all of baseball by a country mile. At 9.5%, they are further away from second-worst Oakland (14.8%) than Oakland is from 18th-place Houston (19.7%).
- Among the 10 Rockies pitchers to throw at least 25 changeups this season, only two of them, Ashton Goudeau and Antonio Senzatela, have an expected wOBA against below .300 (.174 and .275 respectively).
Those are just three nuggets from a list of many. It’s clear the Rockies have a significant issue with changeups. And that’s a bad problem to have, because they have a few pitchers on the team who’d benefit quite a bit from throwing a good change, or throwing more changes. Let’s go over some of them in short detail (I might save the extended version for a piece down the line!).
Antonio Senzatela | Current usage: 7.5%
To me, Senzatela is the most obvious Rockies pitcher who would likely improve noticeably if his changeup improved and/or was used more often. As of now, he’s a two-pitch starting pitcher -his fastball/slider combination makes up almost 85% of his pitches. He has a solid curveball he rarely throws, but his changeup is a much worse pitch on paper, as it barely has separation from his fastball (only about 8 inches vertically, 5 horizontally and 7 MPH off his fastball). Interestingly enough, his changeup spin is almost as high as his fastball spin (2083 RPM to 2132 RPM respectively), which essentially makes his changeup just a slow fastball right now. Developing and deploying that pitch would give him a lot more versatility when it comes to attacking hitters, and make all his other pitches play up as a result of being less predictable.
Ryan Feltner | Current usage: 6%
I’ve written about Feltner’s sinker very recently, and his changeup was a pitch that caught my attention by surprise for how vertically oriented it is. It has less armside run than his sinker but more drop, a similar interaction to Giants ace Logan Webb. Considering his two other offerings are a solid slider and a get-me-over curveball he can’t really rely on over and over again, the development of his changeup is very important for Feltner moving forward.
Germán Márquez | Current usage: 3%
The development of Germán Márquez’s changeup throughout his career has not been development, it’s been stagnation, but I’ve put him lower on the list for the main reason that has been a good pitcher for many years without a changeup. Márquez suddenly developing a plus change out of thin air would be ideal, but considering how the pitch has almost gone backwards for him, it’s not as important at this point as fixing his slider, throwing his curveball more and figuring out what to do with his fastballs. He doesn’t need a cambio to be great, others probably do.
The “how they should improve the changeup” question is one I’m not going to even bother answering, because I don’t have anywhere near the data or the understanding of things such as biomechanics to do it. What I do know is that the general idea of a changeup is to kill spin on it, in order to get impact movement. Good changeups range from RPMs well above 2000 to well below 1500, however, but in my opinion, the Rockies should be going all in on the low-spin variants. We know that Coors Field is very harsh on horizontal movement, and that because of the thin air, spin-based movement takes a significant hit at altitude. This means it makes sense to think about pitches that are less about spin and more about gravity-induced movement. The Rockies already do this to an extent with gyro-spin breaking balls (Márquez’s curveball, Lamet’s slider, etc) and their preference for low-spin four-seam fasballs is well documented, so it stands to reason they could go the same route with offspeed pitches. The splitter, for example, has been discussed before on this very site before, and its low spin makes its movement profile very consistent between sea level and high altitude. The Rockies have only thrown 14 splitters all year, and with the DFA of Robert Stephenson, only Lucas Gilbreath has one on the active staff right now.
Once again, this is not a piece about how the Rockies should go about fixing their changeups -that’s way above my knowledge right now. But I find it important to at least highlight the relative lack of changeup usage, because it’s a noticeable blind spot in their MLB pitching staff right now, and a significant one. When you pitch half your games at Coors Field, leaving entire pitches on the shelf is risky business.
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Trejo has hit .320/.393/.640 this September after finally receiving everyday at-bats with José Iglesias being on the IL, and is probably making his case the best he can for a spot on the Opening Day roster when 2023 arrives.
Bryant is traveling with the Rockies this week and was playing catch in the outfield prior to yesterday’s ballgame. I wouldn’t bet on him coming back, but the Rockies are still holding out hope.
On The Farm
Triple-A: Oklahoma City Dodgers at Albuquerque Isotopes
The ballgame was postponed due to rain, and will be made up today as part of a doubleheader.
Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats at Binghamton Rumble Ponies
Just like Triple-A, the ballgame was postponed due to rain, and will be played today as part of a doubleheader.
High-A: Spokane Indians season complete (Overall record: 64-66)
The Grizzlies hammered the Giants in the first this three-game set of the California League semifinals, and they did it right out of the gate. They forced San José starter Nick Sinacola out of the game after recording just one out in the top of the first with seven of the first eight Grizzlies reaching base, six of them scoring. It was a lead they held all the way, as they kept adding while Grizzlies pitching held strong. Nº 10 PuRP Jaden Hill (2.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR) started the game for Fresno and more or less cruised through the first two frames, but he got into some trouble in the third, allowing a leadoff homer and three of the next four batters to reach base. Cullen Kafka came in relief with the bases loaded and only one down, and while he allowed a pair of runs to come across, he got out of it without a ton of damage and pitched 2 1⁄3 scoreless frames after that. The bullpen as a whole was the other big story of the day, with Kafka, Luis Amoroso, Tanner Propst and Sergio Sánchez combining for 6 2⁄3 innings of scoreless, four-hit ball in which they struck out seven and allowed just one walk. The dominant offense was the true difference-maker in this one, however, as every batter except for Nº 31 PuRP Juan Brito (who only drew a walk) reached base at least twice. Funnily enough, the Grizzlies hit just one double and no homers, deciding instead to hit four triples (!) as a team, with Braxton Fulford coming up with a pair of them. Nº 12 PuRP Jordan Beck had three hits and drove in three, and the team as a whole went 6-for-16 with runners in scoring position. The Grizzlies are off today as they travel back to Fresno for Game 2 on Thursday and, if needed, Game 3 on Friday, where they will have a chance to punch their ticket to the California League finals with Brayan Castillo (4-4, 5.62 ERA) on the mound for Game 2 and Nº 22 PuRP Víctor Juárez (6-5, 4.98 ERA) taking the ball if needed for the winner-take-all matchup in Game 3. Both games will begin at 7:50 PM MDT.
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