The Best Changeups in Baseball

Hall of Fame pitcher and announcer Bob Uecker once said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” No pitch epitomizes this sentiment quite like the changeup. When people talk about the “art of pitching”, they are more often than not referring to a well-located changeup as opposed to a fastball in the triple digits, which is why the pitchers who have mastered changing speeds are truly the artists of their profession. The changeup can be one of the most lethal offerings in a pitcher’s arsenal when thrown correctly. However, mastering this pitch requires a tremendous amount of work as it requires a special combination of deception, finesse, and savvy from the pitcher who employs it. As a result, mastering a changeup is very rare, even at the professional level. Those who have managed to craft the required feel for this pitch have done so in their own way, making the changeup also the most idiosyncratic pitch in the game. No matter if the pitcher uses a power changeup, split-change, circle-change, three-finger change, or palmball as their preferred method to upset the timing of hitters, I believe the changeup is the most beautiful pitch in baseball.  My fascination with this pitch compelled me to make a list of the most impressive changeups in the game. Here is a brief overview of the process I used to reach my conclusions:

  1. I started by looking at which pitchers used the pitch most frequently (CH%) and weighed that against their effectiveness when using it (w/CH/C). (The w/CH/C functions by calculating the runs above average that a hitter has contributed against that pitch standardized on a per 100 pitch basis). I then weighed w/CH/C at 65% and the CH% at 35% to create a single statistic measuring changeup performance for 2016.
  2. Next, I looked at the same statistics but took into account 3-year averages. This was a crucial element in my evaluation as I wanted to make sure I did not leave out a pitcher with a great changeup that was injured in 2016 or had a bad year with the pitch. I did not weigh the 3-year averages against the 2016 statistics in a definitive way, but the history of success with the pitch was certainly factored in.
  3. I then referred to Statcast to take a look at the exit velocity that hitters generated against the pitch. My assumption was that a lower exit velocity would correlate significantly with a high w/CH/C. I felt that this was integral to distinguishing between pitchers who had success with their changeups and pitchers who simply got lucky with the pitch. However, exit velocity is not a perfect statistic as ground balls usually have a higher average exit velocity. Since some changeups are designed to induce ground balls, the fact that hitters had a higher exit velocity against the pitch sometimes meant that pitchers were accomplishing exactly what they wanted with the pitch.
  4. Lastly, I looked at other considerations such as how effective the pitcher was at using the pitch versus both sides of the plate, how often they utilized the pitch to get a strikeout, the horizontal and vertical movement of the pitch, and the speed differential from the pitcher’s primary pitch.  Finally, I read reviews from scouts to see if my data aligned with the opinions of talent evaluators. 

**All data is courtesy of fangraphs.com, MLB.com Statcast data, and the play index at baseballreference.com 

  1. Kyle Hendricks

2016: w/CH/C (1), CH% (2)

3 Year Average = w/CH/C (3), CH%

What’s better than having a dominant changeup? How about having two dominant changeups. Hendricks has both a cut changeup that he uses against righties as well as a circle-change that he uses against lefties. While both changeups sit right around 80 mph, his cut change has downward movement, while his circle-change breaks down and away from lefties. While these pitches are very different in their break, they both produce equally impressive results. Opposing batters swing and miss on these two changeups roughly 20% of the time, which is about twice as good as league average. These two types of changeup are shown below:

Circle Change:

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Cut-Change:

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All in all, Hendricks used his changeup the second most in the MLB in 2016, but despite the fact that hitters knew it was coming, he still managed to have the highest w/CH/C in baseball. While some have claimed that Hendricks league-leading ERA was a fluke due to him benefitting from a low opponent BABIP and an all-time best defense, I think that we should give Hendricks credit where credit is due. In an era where high velocity and strikeout rates are valued more than ever, Hendricks has carved himself a niche by mastering the lost art of changing speeds.

  1. Felix Hernandez

2016: (w/CH/C = 3rd, CH% = 8th)

3 Year Average: (w/CH/C = 8th, CH% = 2nd)

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If you ask scouts around baseball, many will tell you without hesitation that King Felix has the best changeup in the game. His track record with the pitch surpasses any other hurler in the league, as he is only player aside from Hendricks to be in the top 10 in w/CH/C and CH% both in 2016 and according to 3-year averages. The key to any great changeup is having identical arm action to the fastball, and Felix does this better than anyone. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here is his changeup superimposed over his fastball.

While Felix maintained his usually dominant changeup in 2016, his overall performance slid due to decreasing fastball velocity. Since the effectiveness of a changeup is in large part predicated on the difference in speed compared to the fastball, I am afraid that his changeup will suffer if his fastball velocity continues to decline. That being said, the fact that his changeup was just as good as usual this season despite throwing slower might be a testament to just how untouchable his changeup really is. I realize that I am nitpicking, but the nature of these lists is that someone has to occupy the top spot and someone has to be second, so sometimes you have to pull hairs.

  1. David Price

2016: (w/CH/C = 6th, CH% = 4th)

3 year average: (w/CH/C =6th, CH% = 17th)

Coming in at third on this list is David Price. Although Price had a disappointing first season with the Red Sox after signing a deal that is worth more than 30 million a year (that’s almost a million dollars every time he takes the hill), his decline in performance was not due to his changeup. In fact, he used the pitch more frequently and had more success with it than ever before. Price is similar to King Felix in that he is learning how to pitch now that his velocity has started to decline, and a large part of this learning process involves an increased reliance on his changeup. In fact, his CH% has gone up every year since 2010. That year he used it just 6.6% of the time, a minuscule amount compared to his CH% of 22.4% in 2016. While the usage of his changeup has gone up, so as his effectiveness using the pitch. In 2016, hitters had a Weighted Runs Created (wRC+) of just 64 (that means his effectiveness with the pitch was 36% better than league average) against Price when he threw his changeup, a career best for the lanky lefty. While Price did not live up to expectations during his first year in Beantown, his peripheral stats suggest that if he continues to throw his changeup, he will be poised for a huge bounce back in 2017.

  1. Marco Estrada

2016: (w/CH/C=19th, CH% = 1st)

3 year average: (w/CH/C =11th, CH% = 3rd)

There is no pitcher in the MLB who is more dependent on their changeup than Marco Estrada, and for good reason. After recording below league average ERAs in 6 of his first 8 seasons with Milwaukee, Estrada was flipped to the Blue Jays for Adam Lind in 2015. Since the trade, Estrada’s career has taken off and his changeup is a big reason why. What makes Estrada’s changeup so special is the huge difference in velocity in comparison to his primary pitch. In fact, the velocity gap between Estrada’s changeup and his fastball is the greatest for any right-hander in the MLB at -10.7 mph. To be clear, the difference in velocity alone is not very significant if the hitter can tell that the pitcher is about to throw a changeup. After all, anyone could throw a changeup that is nearly 11 mph slower than their fastball if they slowed their arm action down. This is why it is crucial to have indistinguishable arm action and release point for a changeup to be effective. This is also why Estrada’s changeup is among the best in the game. Perhaps nobody in the game is better than Estrada at creating the illusion that a fastball is coming, only to pull the string at the last second, leaving the hitter flailing on his front foot.

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After a career season in 2015 in which Estrada posted a career-low 3.13 ERA, many believed he was a prime candidate for regression in 2016 due to his .216 opponent BABIP. Understandably, a .216 opponent BABIP requires an element of luck, but you can’t entirely luck your way into BABIP that low. This is because a low opponent BABIP is predicated, to some extent, on generating weak contact, an ability in which Estrada excels. In fact, Estrada induced an infield fly ball on 40% of batted balls versus his changeup between 2015 and 2016, indicating that hitters are way out in front of the pitch. After looking like a replacement level starting pitcher in his first eight seasons in the major leagues, Estrada developed a top-tier changeup in Toronto, allowing him to rejuvenate his career.

  1. Cole Hamels

3 Year Average: (w/CH/C = 5, CH% = 16)

For some unknown reason, Cole Hamels decided it would be a good idea to stop throwing his changeup, the pitch that made him one of the most dominant lefties of the past decade. In 2016, Hamels started using changeup less, (career low 18.6%) and using cutter much more (14.7% up to 23.0%). The most confusing part about the decline in Hamel’s changeup use is the fact that according to all PITCH f/x indicators (release point, movement, velocity), the pitch is the same as the one that dominated hitters throughout the first eleven years of his big league career. Hamels was just as effective in his overall performance despite his reluctance to use his changeup because he developed an even more dominant pitch, his cutter. Hamels showed that his cutter was better than his changeup in inducing outs from left-handed batters, but his reliance on the pitch against righties was probably ill-advised as he was much more effective utilizing his changeup against RHBs (101 wRC+ with cutter vs. RHB, 80 wRC+ w/ changeup vs. RHB). Overall, the development of another above-average pitch to Hamel’s arsenal could help him as he ages and his velocity declines, but it would behoove the left-hander if he used the pitch primarily to LHB and used his changeup more against righties.

  1. AJ Ramos – w/CH/C = 2.56, CH% = 18%

Ramos appears as the only reliever on this list, and for good reason. Amongst relief pitchers, he had both the highest w/CH/C and the highest CH% in 2016. In other words, he uses his changeup more frequently and with more effectiveness than any other relief pitcher in the game. In 2015, he ranked first among relievers in CH swSTR%, (a stat that measures the swing-and-miss rate for hitters). He continued this trend in 2016, putting himself in the conversation as one of the top 5 closers in the National League. Ramos is unique in that he is one of the few closers in the MLB that can be effective despite a fastball that averaged just 91.9 mph in 2016. Ramos can improve in 2017 if he relies on his changeup even more as hitters made weak contact with the pitch on a regular basis in the previous two seasons. In fact, hitters managed a meager .018 ISO (Slugging percentage – Batting Average) against Ramos when he threw his changeup in 2016. To simplify, the slugging percentage against his changeup was basically equal to the batting average against his changeup. If there is anything that screams you have a lethal weapon in your arsenal, it’s a statistic like that.

  1. Danny Duffy

2016: w/CH/C = 13th, CH% =19th

3 year average: w/CH/C =19th, CH% = 55th*

The transition from reliever to starter was seamless for Duffy as he quietly emerged as one of the best left-handers in the American League in 2016. Usually, young pitchers are delegated to bullpen roles because they only have two pitches and as a result are especially hittable the 2nd and 3rd time through lineups. Rarely, though, are relievers turned into starters. This was the case for Duffy and the pitch that he finally got to throw was his changeup. As you may have noticed, Duffy was 55th in the MLB in CH% over the last three seasons. However, as a result of joining the starting rotation, that number grew enough to be good for 19th in the MLB.

Duffy didn’t just use his changeup more in 2016, he succeeded with it. Duffy held hitters to just a .527 OPS off his changeup in 2016 due to his ability to manipulate the pitch both down and in to right-handed batters. The break was so devastating that right-handed batters had an abysmal wRC of 48+ in 2016, which was good for best in the league. Any pitch that allows a LHP to neutralize right-handed batters is a huge advantage, but a pitch that completely dominates them has the capability of making Duffy one of the better lefties in the AL for years to come.

  1. Zach Davies

2016: (w/CH/C = 10th, CH% = 7th)

3 Year Average = N/A (2016 was Davies rookie season)

Davies profile is very similar to Kyle Hendricks in that he is a RHP that relies primarily on a sinker and changeup. In fact, the velocity of Davies sinker and changeup are nearly identical to Hendricks.

Davies FBv = 89.3, CHv = 78.5

Hendricks FBv = 89.7, CHv – 80.1

Davies’ even outpaced Hendricks in some categories this season as his change produced the lowest average exit velocity — 81.4 mph — in baseball (min. 50 balls in play). There is no denying that in 2016, Davies had one of the best changeups in baseball. The only reason for not putting him higher on this list is the fact last year was only his rookie season and it would be unfair to put him above some of the more established guys that are ahead of him on this list. However, if Davies shows similar acumen with his changeup in 2017, he could propel himself to the top half of this list.

  1. Brandon Finnegan

2016: w/CH/C = 4th, CH% = 25th

3 Year Average = N/A (2016 was Finnegan’s first full season)

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When Finnegan threw this changeup, he was only 3 months removed from pitching for TCU in the College World Series. His aggressive mechanics create an illusion that every pitch is going to be released with max velocity, so when he eases up, he is able to pull the string on hitters frequently. Additionally, Finnegan’s changeup features late cut action which makes it a difficult pitch to hit even if the hitter has timed it well. He had the 4th most effective change up on a per pitch basis according to the w/CH/C statistic, but he was barely in the top 25 in his usage of the pitch, so he didn’t get to enjoy the pitches full success.

The 2016 season was a step in the right direction for Finnegan as he nearly doubled his changeup use (up to 11.6% from 6.8 in 2015). This development helped Finnegan establish himself as an above-average major league starter, but in order for the left-hander to take the next step, he will need to lean on the pitch even more. Last year, Finnegan used his slider twice as much as his changeup, despite having a negative w/CH/C rating with the pitch. Compare that to his elite w/CH/C rating and it is fairly obvious that Finnegan can catapult himself into an All-Star level starting pitcher if he simply realizes where his strengths lie.

  1. Scott Kazmir

Scott Kazmir is another pitcher who had a down 2016 but has shown enough dominance with his changeup over the course of his career to make this list. The most impressive thing about Kazmir’s changeup is the differential in velocity from his fastball. Early in his career, his differential was pretty average (ranging from -10.4 and -11.1 between 2004 and 2010), but after re-emerging from being out of affiliated baseball in 2013, he displayed a changeup with a league-high -12.2 differential. This continued into the next season when he reached a -13.8 differential and then got even better in 2015 when his differential reached a ludicrous -15.3. To put that number into perspective, the league average differential was 8.2 in 2015, which means Kazmir had a differential that was 187% better than league average. Last season did not go as well for Kazmir as his ERA ballooned to 4.56, but there is no evidence that this was due to his changeup. His opponents had an 80 wRC+ and he suffered from a 14.3% HR/FB (up from 8.6% the year before) indicating he was even a little unlucky with the pitch. If Kazmir wants to return to the All-Star status that garnered his a 3 year 48 million dollar contract in the 2016 offseason, he will need to continue to lean on his elite changeup.   

2 thoughts on “The Best Changeups in Baseball

  1. Just as some pro football receivers take ballet for an edge in flexibility and balance, maybe change up pitchers should consider an acting class to learn facial/body language tricks on selling the not-coming fastball?

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    1. The key to selling a change-up is make sure the arm action is identical to the fastball. Pitching coaches constantly work to make sure that pitchers do not change their mechanics when throwing change-ups. In an age in which every pitch is on video, when a pitcher tips his change-up, it is known league wide almost immediately, which allows hitters to know the pitch is coming.

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