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Switching grips could save Michael Pineda’s changeup

The frustrating righty could definitely use a third pitch.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

If Michael Pineda never puts it together, no one will ever be able to say that it was due to a lack of effort from internet analysts trying to diagnose his problems. His excellent strikeout numbers and walk numbers, combined with his below average ERA have perplexed many, with a few explanations floating out there. Common theories as to why he isn’t pitching at an ace-caliber level include poor fastball command, a lack of a third pitch, and not attacking the corners as much with runners on base.

Today, we’ll focus on the elusive third pitch. In 2016, he threw his changeup 8.5% of the time, according to Pitch F/X data. He wasn’t particularly bad at locating his changeup, as shown by a heatmap from FanGraphs:

However, hitters were particularly good at hitting his changeup. They put up a .903 OPS against Pineda’s offspeed pitch, and it didn’t seem to matter if he located it down and away against lefties:

Pineda’s poor changeup shouldn’t come as a surprise. First, he averaged just 5.5 mph of separation between his fastball and changeup, with the latter clocking in at an average 88.5 mph. There is one more thing that stands out when looking at the movement of his fastball and changeup.

According to Pitch F/X data, Pineda gets five more inches of horizontal movement on his changeup than on his fastball. Like fastballs, changeups can be thrown with either a four-seam or a two-seam grip. Also like fastballs, changeups thrown with a two-seam grip get more run and fade. Pineda’s offspeed pitch is thrown with a two-seam grip (the main photo in this post shows his changeup grip).

In theory, getting more movement on his changeup shouldn’t be a bad thing. The problem is that he doesn’t throw a two-seam fastball to go along with his two-seam changeup. In September, Eno Sarris at FanGraphs wrote a great article entitled What Can Hitters Actually See Out of a Pitcher’s Hand? Several MLB hitters claimed to be able to read the spin of pitches, which might be impacting the effectiveness of Pineda’s changeup.

Looking at the most effective changeups of 2016, a trend emerges. The table below shows the qualified pitchers with the 10 highest pitch values for changeups, in terms of FanGraphs’ Pitch Values metric. By looking at a combination of Google Images and the disparity in horizontal movement between their four seam fastballs and changeups, I tried to guess what grip each pitcher was using:

Top 10 Most Effective Changeups (2016)

Name Avg. FF Velo (mph) Avg. CH Velo (mph) Velocity Difference 2 Seam/Sinker % Changeup Grip
Name Avg. FF Velo (mph) Avg. CH Velo (mph) Velocity Difference 2 Seam/Sinker % Changeup Grip
Kyle Hendricks* 89.7 80.1 9.6 45.60% N/A
David Price 92.9 84.4 8.5 37.20% 2-Seam
Marco Estrada 88.1 77.2 10.9 0.00% 4-Seam
Jeremy Hellickson 90 80.4 9.6 23.10% 4-Seam
Chris Sale** 93 86.2 6.8 55.80% 2-Seam
Rick Porcello 91.4 80.8 10.6 35.40% 4-Seam
Brandon Finnegan 91.8 85 6.8 53.70% 2-Seam
Tanner Roark 92.1 83.7 8.4 58.90% 2-Seam
Zach Davies** 89.3 78.5 10.8 55.90% 2-Seam
Danny Duffy 94.9 85.2 9.7 19.50% 2-Seam

*Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks has two changeups.
**According to Pitch F/X, Chris Sale and Zach Davies didn’t throw any four-seam fastballs in 2016. Instead, their two-seam fastball velocities are given.

Looking at the table, most of the pitchers who (I think) throw their changeups with a two-seam grip also happen to throw two-seam fastballs. FanGraphs had Michael Pineda throwing a two-seam fastball 3.7% of the time, which is more than zero. At the same time, it is such a small number that it might just be a result of their Pitch F/X algorithm falsely classifying 111 of his pitches as two-seamers.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Pineda should switch grips. Pitchers who use four-seam grips need a large velocity gap between their fastball and changeup, looking at the table shown above. Still, it is something to think about going forward for Pineda. Mixing in a few two-seamers might improve the effectiveness of his changeup as it is. Alternatively, switching to a four-seam grip might save his offspeed pitch if he can find a way to take some velocity off of it as well. Either way, it is hard not to feel like Pineda is one small adjustment away from something special.

Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.