Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen: The Changeup

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Analysis: AJ Schugel became a Pittsburgh Pirate on January 19, 2016, when the team selected him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners.  Felipe Rivero came over from the Washington Nationals in the Mark Melancon deal on July 30, 2016.  Tony Watson has been a mainstay in the bullpen for the Pirates since his debut in 2011.  All three possess devastating changeups.

There are multiple ways to define how good a pitch is.  The slugging percentage off a certain pitch, the spin rate of the pitch, how whiff percentage, Fangraphs’ linear weight values, among others.  There is also ways to quantify how well a pitcher plays the pitch off another, thanks to Baseball Prospectus’ pitch tunnel stats.  The Pittsburgh Pirates feature three pitchers in AJ Schugel, Felipe Rivero, and Tony Watson who are excellent at throwing the changeup.

AJ Schugel

According to Brooks Baseball, Schugel threw 497 fastballs, 280 changeups, and 40 curveballs, or 60.83 percent, 34.27 percent, and 4.90 percent respectively.  Among pitchers with 50 innings pitched, only Deolis Guerra, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Rodriguez, and Mike Morin threw the changeup more than Schugel.

Schugel only ranks 68th of 126 pitchers to throw the changeup 200 or more times.  He ranks 38th in exit velocity and 76th in launch angle.  None of these are elite,  but his 10th lowest slugging against (0.216) is.  His spin rate is on the higher end, ranking as the 32nd highest.

Schugel finished the season with the sixth-most runs (wCH) on his changeup among relief pitchers with 50 or more innings with 8.0 runs.  His changeup got results in 2016, and that is because of how he set it up from his fastball.

Schugel has 139 sequences of first pitch fastball and second pitch changeup last season.  He was among 141 pitchers to have that sequence at least 50 times.  He ranked in the 87.1 percentile in post-tunnel break with a mark of 0.3588.  His release-tunnel (smaller the better) of 0.2004 was the 29th lowest (81.4 percentile).  Schugel also had the 13th highest break-tunnel ratio at 0.4393.  His fastball and changeup “are either tightly clustered at the hitter’s decision-making point or the pitches are separating a lot after the hitter has selected a location to swing at.”

Schugel’s ability to play the changeup off the fastball allowed him to limit the damage done on the pitch.  The low slugging percentage that he obtained allowed him to have on of the best changeups in FanGraphs’ pitch values for the pitch.

Tony Watson

Tony Watson threw his changeup 24.69 percent of the time last season. That was the highest he has thrown it in his career.  The pitch averaged 85.99 miles per hour, up from the 85.90 from 2015, but still, below the 87+, he threw the pitch at from 2012-14.  Overall, the pitch had the third highest spin rate at 2354 RPM. In 2015 his changeup had a spin rate of 2423 RPM, ranking second highest among those with 150 or more changeups thrown.

Watson’s changeup produced the 4th highest pitching runs in 2016, 10.0 wCH.  Watson got 106 whiffs on 227 swings, a whiff rate of 45.5 percent, 6th highest in baseball.  In 2015, Watson finished 6th with a 6.1 wCH.  He produced a whiff rate of 40.7 percent that year, ranking 25th among the 164 pitchers with 150+ changeups.

In 2016, opponents had very weak contact on this pitch, hitting the ball with an average exit velocity of 82.4 miles per hour, 15th lowest.  The slugging against this pitch was ninth best, .216, and his .081 ISO was 16th best.  In 2015, opponents averaged 83.3 mph off of Watson’s change, and as a result, he had a .291 slugging and .091 ISO.

Watson also played his changeup off his fastball by having the third lowest release tunnel at 0.131.  Watson’s changeup was excellent each of the last two seasons. He has produced the second best (16.1) wCH among relievers with 50 or more innings the last two seasons.

Felipe Rivero

Felipe Rivero’s changeup is one of the best in the game.  Adam Berry of MLB.com pointed our:

Rivero’s changeup last season produced 79 whiffs on 137 swings, a whiff rate of 57.7 percent, and right-handed hitters had a whiff percentage of 59.52 percent against the changeup.  Not only did opponents whiff more times than not, Rivero kept them from doing damage when the ball was put into play.  The .213 slugging and 0.082 ISO ranked eighth and 19th best last season.

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Last season Rivero used his changeup 21.20 percent of the time, way up from the 4.73 percent in 2015.  The pitch averaged 88.16 miles per hour ranking 11th best and had the 33rd highest spin rate at 1933 RPMs.

Rivero’s fastball to changeup sequence, in which he did 149 times, produced the 22nd best (.3497) post-tunnel break.

Rivero’s high-velocity changeup coming from the left side allowed him to produce a wCH of 4.9.  This ranking is the 10th best among relievers with 50 or more innings.  He got whiffs on the pitch, making it near unhittable, and when opponents did put the ball in play, they did no do so with much power.

Other noteworthy numbers

In 2015, Daniel Hudson led baseball in spin rate on the changeup with a RPM of 2434.  In 2016, Hudson fell to second with a RPM of 2504.  Are the Pirates looking to acquire relievers with high spin on their changeups?  Tony Watson and Daniel Hudson produce some of the highest in the game, and they look to lead the backend.

Hudson threw the changeup more in 2015 than 2016, going from 26.85 percent to 18.27 percent.  All Wade LeBlanc throws are changeups, throwing 24.75 percent and 29.98 percent the last two years he’s pitched in the big leagues (2014 and 2016), the second highest and highest of any pitch he threw those two years.  LeBlanc has low spin on his changeup, just 1490 RPMs ranking 17th lowest.

Next: Spring Notes: Meadows and Weiss

The Pittsburgh Pirates seem to have five guys, three in the backend, that are not afraid to use the changeup and have produced good to great results in the past.  Hudson’s change was great in 2015, but not so much last season.  It appears as if they’re looking to compliment the high velocity on fastballs with changeups, and it could be the inefficiency the team always looks for.

*Numbers from baseball savant, FanGraphs, baseball prospectus, and brooks baseball