The biggest pitching prospect ever made waves in his first few campaigns with his triple digit velocity and a slurve whose trajectory seemed to break physics. The pitch he barely got recognition for was his changeup, but for good reason; he threw it barely 15% of the time from his debut through last year, and it routinely registered at or over 90 MPH, often faster than the opposing starter’s fastball. Right or wrong, people are quick to write off any changeup that doesn’t feature a large velocity difference. Even for someone like Strasburg, only so much can fit on the hype train, and many fans were unfortunately missing out the best changeup in the game right now, and on one of the most electric pitches in baseball. Don’t believe it? See for yourself.
Stephen Strasburg‘s changeup has been worth 10.2 runs above average according to pitch type linear weights, over a full run better than second place, Johnny Cueto. He’s able to make the pitch so effective by keeping the same arm angle and arm speed throughout his mechanics, whether he’s throwing his fastball, breaker or change. His seven MPH difference isn’t the largest separator, in fact it’s quite average, but he feeds off of the elite deception that his mechanics give him.
Watching hitters get fooled by the pitch is common, as they swing and miss on the pitch 25.7% of the time it’s thrown, third best. Batters chase it out of the zone 51.1%, top ten in the majors. Even when hitters do make contact, they aren’t driving it. The pitch is getting a 69.6% ground ball rate, and only one homer has come off the pitch in the last two seasons which was let up to Giancarlo Stanton. All hitters this year are hitting .154 on it, good enough for a wRC+ of only 13.
Its effectiveness stems from the motives of the thrower. Stephen Strasburg doesn’t use it for big break, but late fade to keep hitters guessing. As told to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post:
“Obviously, it looks cooler on TV when you’re watching it, when a guy is throwing something that’s move like this” – Strasburg waved his hand in a sweeping motion – “or dropping off. But a hitter can see it a lot earlier. I’m trying to get away from that and get more consistent, tighter pitches that are going to break maybe a little bit less, but sharper and later.”
What is absolutely ridiculous about him not trying to have huge movement on the pitch is that he has some of the best movement in the league. He gets nine inches of arm side run on average from the pitch, with excellent late fade. Below is what the pitch looks like from the batter’s box, using the average pitch trajectory from PITCHf/x data:
Strasburg’s efforts with the change are bearing fruit, as he has the best one in the game today. He’s ramped up his usage this year to 25% after he decided to scrap the slider, and no one is complaining, except maybe opposing batters. His league leading 10.82 K/9 has been heavily fueled by the breakout of the pitch, and he’s not planning on slowing it down anytime soon. As long as Stephen Strasburg is still throwing high 90s with his wipeout curve and the best changeup in baseball, he’s going to be a tough pitcher to beat.