Miami Marlins: How Pablo López’s changeup became one of MLB’s best pitches

May 7, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Pablo Lopez (49) throws a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
May 7, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Pablo Lopez (49) throws a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports /

DENVER — Miami Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings has a problem, and it’s a problem that any MLB catcher would like to have.

You see, Miami Marlins starting pitcher Pablo López has developed one of the most effective pitches in baseball in his changeup. In an era where throwing hard is all the rage, López has developed the skill of taking a little something off the pitch to throw batters off their rhythm at the plate.

As the Marlins catcher, Stallings wants to use the best weapons his pitcher has to offer, but he also knows there is a time and place to call for the changeup from López.

“You don’t want to use it too much so that it might lose its effectiveness, but it’s one of the best pitches in baseball, so you want to use it as much as you can,” Stallings said. “We try to be unpredictable with it, maybe using it in different counts and different spots. We want it to be effective, but still use it as much as we can because it’s such a good pitch.”

It’s such a good pitch, in fact, that through his first 10 starts of the season, López has thrown it 37.3 percent of the time, with opposing batters hitting just .149 against it. The whiff percentage (swing and miss divided by total swings) on the pitch is 42.6 percent this season while the changeup has served as the “putaway pitch” (two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout) for López is at 25.4 percent, both the highest rate of any pitch he throws.

“He arguably has the best changeup in the game,” Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black told media members before López took the mound against his team in Denver on Memorial Day.

Lopez then went out and threw six shutout innings against the Rockies in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly parks, getting seven whiffs on 18 swings when the changeup was employed. Of the four changeups the Rockies actually put into play, all went for outs.

Whether it’s at 6 feet elevation in Miami or right around 5,280 feet above sea level in Denver, the 26-year-old López has flashed some of the best combinations of pitches of any MLB pitcher this season. He left Denver with a National League-leading 1.83 ERA and 225 ERA+.

But what makes the changeup such a good pitch? For Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, it’s because Lopez has it as a part of his arsenal, not as the complete package.

“It’s good because he has all the pitches and you have to handle all parts of the zone,” Mattingly said. “And any he throws it (changeup) in any spot. As a batter, you have to make a decision.

“When (the changeup) is good, it’s down the middle and it’s hard to lay off. You can say you’re going to lay off of it, but it looks like a strike the whole way until the end. If he’s able to do that, it doesn’t matter who we play or who he’s facing.

“It’s been an effective pitch, but also because of all his other weapons. You know, he’s not just a one trick pony. He has a number of weapons.”

And López has worked hard in recent months to ensure that, whether he is throwing a fastball or a changeup, the arm slot and location of the release of the pitch remains the same, keeping the type of pitch a secret and giving the batter an additional moment of hesitation.

Watch in this series of five strikeouts against Colorado where he uses a mixture of pitches (including a changeup on the second and fifth strikeouts). See if you can tell a difference in the release point or arm slot for any of the pitches.

And here is how those pitches looked at the end of the day in Denver, with López continuing his year-long trend of keeping fastballs above the waist and his changeups below it.

“I throw both a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball, and I think I’m very consistent on throwing those pitches and my changeup out of the same arm slot,” said López, who has an average of 87.4 mph on his changeup this season compared to a fastball velocity of 92.9 mph. “Being able to be consistent with my delivery and the release point with my fastball and change is what really helps me.”

López has also gained confidence in his changeup during the years, making it an even more effective pitch.

“Confidence gives you good results and good results give you confidence,” López smiled. “One thing that really helped me with my change was getting the confidence to throw it to both lefties and righties. In my early minor league career, the changeup was more common to throw to lefties. Eventually, I took the next step to mix it up against righties and I saw that it could help me if I used it in a smart way with my two-seam fastball and four-seam fastball.

“You don’t want to abuse any pitch because if you abuse it, it stops being effective. You want to keep having it be effective, especially in big moments.”

That confidence in the changeup can be seen in how López has employed it since his MLB debut on June 30, 2018. Each year, changeup usage has nearly doubled, from 19.2 percent in 2018 to 37.3 percent this season.

With the mixture of pitches, López is quick to credit Miami Marlins pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. for his impact he has made over the four seasons they have worked together in south Florida.

“He’s always pushing us to get better. He knows where he wants you to go and, little by little, he will get you to that point,” López said. “Any questions I have, he gives me the most honest answer with the most foundation. He’s done his research on everything, and you know you’re getting a legit answer on anything you ask about pitching.”

Stallings said what Lopez is now bringing to the mound in any given start is another step in his evolution into one of MLB’s most consistent pitchers. Case in point: Stallings said López didn’t have his best changeup of the year when pitching in Colorado. But, even without his best stuff and pitching in a different type of environment, he found a way to get outs.

“He’s evolved in a way to get guys out in different ways that he couldn’t in the past,” Stallings said. “If he’s been relying on his changeup and it isn’t there, he is still able to go out there and put up zeroes.”

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So what’s the next step for López in that evolution?

“As a starting pitcher, the goal and the dream is to always go nine innings,” López said. “To be able to do that includes a big, big part of remaining unpredictable, so that’s one thing I am always working on.”