Nine things to know about the best changeup in baseball

If the baseball season ended today, an awful lot of people would be awfully confused, and the Seattle Mariners would qualify for the playoffs.

There’s no bigger reason for the Mariners’ success than Felix Hernandez, and there’s no bigger reason for King Felix’s success than his changeup. Hernandez featured his change as the American League’s starting pitcher in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

Here’s that pitch putting away the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig:

Here’s that pitch putting away the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki:

Good hitters, both of those. Good pitches, both of those.

By this point Hernandez is a household name, and it’s no secret that he offers a dominant changeup, or cambio. He’s been throwing the pitch for years, for almost exactly as long as he’s been a Cy Young contender. But sometimes it isn’t enough to just know something. With Hernandez pitching as well as he ever has, it seems like a good time to get more familiar with the best pitch he throws, that’s also one of the best pitches in the league.

Here are nine facts about Hernandez’s changeup:

1. It hasn’t really been with him all that long

The “Seattle Times” recently rolled out a few feature columns about the Mariners ace and face of the franchise. Tucked into one of the articles is a quote from Hernandez:

"In ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08, I wasn’t throwing any changeups at all. Maybe two or three per game. In ’09, I started playing with the grip, started throwing it in the bullpen and playing catch. It came out really good."

The best changeup in baseball was self-taught, a few years into Hernandez’s big-league career. When he first came up, he was known for everything else. He had a fastball that could scrape triple digits. He had a breaking ball referred to as the Royal Curve. He had a slider the team had to keep him from throwing too often in order to try to preserve his health. What changeup he had was hardly a feature pitch. It was there simply to keep hitters honest. Through 2008, Hernandez owned a 3.80 ERA. Since 2009, he’s posted a 2.77 ERA.

2. Other players aren’t sure what to call it

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said:

"Felix might have the best stuff in the game as a starter. His changeup, or whatever he calls that thing, is the most amazing pitch."

Current Indians infielder Elliot Johnson said (when he was with the Rays in 2012):

"They all look like fastballs out of his hand, but it winds up being a breaking ball, or that split-finger-looking changeup — whatever that thing is."

In the same SI article, Padres catcher Nick Hundley was quoted:

"You never want to get to a point where you have to swing at his split or changeup, whatever you call it."

Oakland slugger Brandon Moss knows what to call it, not that he thinks it has any peers:

"He has the good fastball, he has the good breaking ball, but there is no one in baseball that throws a Felix Hernandez changeup. No one."

3. It’s able to get whiffs and grounders

Brooks Baseball is a phenomenal site, with all the pitch information one could possibly hope for. Hernandez’s page displays exactly how dominant his changeup has been over the years. The change has generated whiffs on 37 percent of all swings, and generated 65 percent grounders. The former is 1.4 standard deviations above the mean, while the latter is 2.2 above.

This season, Hernandez’s whiff rate has been 46 percent, and his groundball rate has been 71 percent. The former is 2.6 standard deviations above the mean, while the latter is 3.0 above. An effective changeup usually gets either missed swings or groundballs. Hernandez’s changeup gets both … in extraordinary numbers.

4. It goes about as fast as a Tim Lincecum fastball

This is an essential fact to understand about the pitch, and it helps explain why opposing batters have so much trouble trying to classify it. Lincecum won the NL Cy Young in 2008 and ‘09, while Hernandez won the AL Cy Young in 2010. Lincecum used to throw harder than he does now. His average fastball these days is just over 90 mph. The average Hernandez changeup is also just over 90 mph. Hernandez singlehandedly undermines the notion that a changeup and a fastball need to have significant separation in order to work.

It’s not just that Hernandez’s changeup is unusually fast. His fastball velocity has declined over time, but his changeup velocity has remained the same. His fastball is down a tick or two from 2009, but his changeup is at the same level, meaning the velocity separation has only gotten smaller. Doesn’t matter. What works for Hernandez might not work for somebody else, but this is definitely working for the Mariners ace.

5. Hernandez keeps on improving his command of it

Hernandez wants to throw his changeup down. Seldom does a pitcher want to throw a changeup with more elevation, because then it’s on the same plane as the fastball. As a proxy for changeup command, here are Hernandez’s year-by-year rates of changeups at or below the level of the lowest third of the strike zone. Basically, these are changeups just above the knee, or lower.

Year Low %
2008 55%
2009 66%
2010 65%
2011 68%
2012 73%
2013 77%
2014 82%

There is steady improvement. In 2009, when Hernandez first took things to a new level, he threw two of every three changeups down. This season, he’s right around five of every six, helping to explain his greater efficiency and his reduced dinger rate. With two strikes, his low changeup rate this year is up to 90 percent. He just isn’t making many mistakes with the pitch, and the changeup is so good that he almost has to make a mistake for the hitter to have a chance.

6. It sure does get a lot of swings out of the zone

On the year, Hernandez has induced swings at 50 percent of changeups thrown outside of the strike zone. Because hitters think it might be a fastball, they swing, particularly when they’re behind in the count. Because it isn’t a fastball, it dives down and hitters are mostly helpless. A swing at a pitch out of the zone is almost universally good, for a pitcher. Hernandez squeezes plenty of them out of his opponents, which means they end up with fewer swings at pitches in the zone, where the damage can happen.

7. Hernandez trusts it in any situation

Earlier in his career, Hernandez was a bit too fastball-heavy, especially after falling behind in the count. Many pitchers run the risk of being too predictable when they have to fight back. But Hernandez now knows what he has in his change. From FOX Sports MLB Insider Ken Rosenthal:

"My first conversation with (Hernandez) about the way he likes to pitch, he told me with great confidence, ‘I throw anything in any count!’" (Seattle catcher John) Buck recalled. "And he does that really well."

This season when behind in the count against lefties, Hernandez has thrown 23 percent changeups. He’s thrown 18 percent as the first pitch. Behind in the count against to righties, he’s thrown 12 percent changeups, even though the pitch is traditionally reserved for opposite-handed bats.

With runners in scoring position, Hernandez has thrown 40 percent changeups and 32 percent when behind in the count against lefties and righties. Hernandez doesn’t need to try to get a strike with his fastball, because he knows he can usually get a strike with something else. It’s not untrue.

8. It’s taken over as his go-to put-away pitch

Here’s a table, showing the year-by-year rates of strikeouts for which Hernandez’s changeup has been responsible:

Year Changeup K%
2008 17%
2009 21%
2010 32%
2011 42%
2012 38%
2013 36%
2014 51%

In 2009, Hernandez recorded a fifth of his strikeouts on changeups. This year, he’s notched half of his strikeouts on changeups. More changeup strikeouts mean fewer breaking-ball strikeouts … and at least according to conventional wisdom, fewer breaking balls means better health. There’s no denying Hernandez’s durability; it’s a big part of what makes him so special.

9. It’s amazing

Since 2002, FanGraphs has pitch-type classification information. It also has data on pitch run values, which, basically, is a measure of a pitch’s effectiveness. A called strike boosts the run value. A called ball reduces the run value. A strikeout boosts the run value. A single allowed reduces the run value.

Covering that 2002-14 window, 183 pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 changeups. Hernandez ranks third in overall changeup run value and first in changeup run value per 100 changeups.

For as long as FG has data, Hernandez has thrown baseball’s best changeup, and it has never been better than it has been this season.

Article written by Jeff Sullivan.