Strasburg’s Pitches Reveal More than a Change

While June has been pretty good for the Nats, it has not been the kindest month for Stephen Strasburg. He’s started 5 games, and while they all weren’t bad, he piled up a 5.02 ERA. Most of this was due to his last three starts, where he gave up 3, 4, and 7 earned runs, respectively.

Earlier in the season, he was looking pretty good, and some of this was thanks to the increased use of his changeup. Prior to this season, he was throwing his change about 16% of the time, this year he’s thrown it 22% of the time, mostly at the expense of his curveball. It was not just a good pitch, it was pretty unhittable.

But with the last few weeks not looking great, I wondered if maybe that knockout pitch wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. So let’s take a quick look at some PitchFX numbers from Brooks Baseball. Starting with what Stras did for the year, you can get an idea of how effective that changeup has been

2014StrasPitchesJune28

You can see that the slider and the sinker have the worst numbers, and while the fourseamer has also gotten hit, the change and the curve look tough as hell. So let’s go month by month, starting with April.

In April, Strasburg had a 4.24 ERA, and wasn’t at his best. And some of that can probably be blamed on his pitch selection. Take a look:

2014April-StrasPitchesJune28

First thing you may notice is that his slider numbers in April are his total slider numbers. Yeah, whether or not you want to blame the slider, he did, because he hasn’t used it since. Also in April, the curve looked good, but not as good as for the season.

Meanwhile, the changeup – oh the changeup. 19 strikeouts, a .039 batting average from one single… the league’s gotta take notice of that. So let’s look at May to see if they did:

2014May-StrasPitchesJune28

There you see the aforementioned lack of the slider. The sinker was once again barely used (a blip in the data? perhaps he’s only throwing one type of FB and once in a while the computer picks it up as a sinker?), so he’s basically a 3 pitch pitcher at this point.

What’s starting to emerge, though, is that people are kind of hitting the crap out of his fastball. More so than you would think with his stuff, although, maybe there’s more to it than that. But before we get into that – the changeup is no longer completely unhittable, but still no extra base hits. And he’s getting even more success from the curveball, although 2 extra base hits? Bush league, man.

Anyway, let’s take a look at June as a whole, which did start out strong, before diving in to those last three starts

2014June-StrasPitchesJune28

Again, those fastballs are getting smashed while the offspeed pitches are looking better. He does have the one home run off of a changeup (by Freddie Freeman in that 13 inning loss to the Braves) but the offspeed stuff… it’s ok. So maybe if we go to the last 3 starts we can get a real look into what happened recently.

2014Last3June-StrasPitchesJune28

Yeah, that’s the bad stuff. The fastballs are getting tattooed – interestingly whatever they see as sinkers (it’s usually a 2 seamer) almost exclusive occurred in the last three starts in June. So maybe he should continue to avoid that one, eh? But we’re not here to look at fastballs, are we?

The curveball, while not great, is looking better. But the changeup got hit, right? Well, it got hit three times, and one of them was for a home run. It still resulted in 4 Ks, and and 3 hits out of 13 ABs isn’t exactly a sign of the apocalypse.

It doesn’t look like the change is doing much worse, but it’s something to keep an eye on. The pitch was so incredibly unhittable early in the season that hitters may be starting to look for it a bit more. It’s only been three starts where he’s look bad of late, and only one changeup was hit really hard.

The other Brooks Baseball data shows that the changeup results aren’t really different recently in terms of groundball rate, a few more are being hit in the air, including that home run, but there aren’t too many alarm bells yet. At least not with the changeup.

I tried to find something out of the ordinary with the change, and while I’m no PitchFX expert, you can look at the velocities for that change compared with the fastball:

Strasburg FB+Changeups June 28

Even though there is fluctuation with the change velocity, it has pretty much had the same drop in velocity from the fastball. The Freeman homer, however, was a fast changeup – 91 mph – so maybe that had something to do with it? Certainly a 90-ish change has been very effective for him when he’s sitting in the mid-90s with the heater. But if someone is waiting for it, 91 is probably around the velocity that gets hit the most in the league, albeit as a fastball on other pitchers, so it shouldn’t be too tough to kill. It’s hard to watch that 95+ coming at you and not prepare for it, though, so he may still be totally fine with his change.

There’s not too much I can conclude here, other than to say besides the Freeman blast, the changeup looks like one of the best pitches in baseball. Sure it hasn’t had a pretty couple of games, but it’s been mostly spectacular all year. If the numbers continue to look less than spectacular after a few weeks, we’ll have more data to try to understand why, but so far there just don’t seem to be any red flags.

The Real Issue

On the other hand, maybe we should be looking at the fastball, rather than that changeup. I was surprised at how hard Strasburg’s fastballs have been hit. Setting aside the sinker, because he doesn’t use it a ton (and looking at the results, Stras should set it aside, too), the fastball aint looking pretty. A .329 batting average against, a .511 slugging… and let’s say a .365 OBP with the walks. Um, .329/.365/.511 is eye-openingly bad.

How bad is it? It’s Adrian Beltre (.315/.371/.509) last year. He was 7th in the MVP voting! But there might be a reason for this. Strasburg’s offspeed numbers are equally bad this year… but for the hitters. So they may just be sitting on fastballs. If you can’t touch anything else, well, you know what they say: everybody in the majors can hit fastballs.

I don’t have evidence of what the hitters are expecting to see, but they’re going after the fastball, then he’s probably gotta locate better. Easier said than done, but he needs the fastball in order to set up the other pitches. Without the speedball, there isn’t gonna be an effective changeup or curve.

That being said, maybe he needs to use the offspeed stuff a bit more. A guy like Tyler Clippard shows that a good changeup can be used to set up a fastball, rather than vice versa. Of course, Clippard has a bigger velocity differential between the two pitches.

Either way, it seems to me pretty clear that hitters in the league are doing their best to guess fastball, and they’ve been successful at that. Without locating better, or making that fastball guess incorrect more often, it doesn’t appear they’re going to stop hitting it.

Back to the Good Stuff

The good news, though is that it turns out the changeup is still pretty impressive. So, feeling comfort in the fact that it continues to be filthy, have fun with some Straschange-related stuff!

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