Yankees fans and pundits alike worked themselves into a frenzy watching the way Brian Cashman went about assembling the pitching staff. In a winter buyer’s market, he passed on reliable starters and impact relievers, opting instead to load the rotation with high variance reclamation projects and the bullpen with bargain arms. People were ready to hit the panic button before the season even began.
Now more than a month into the season, the starters own the second-best ERA in the AL (3.59) while the relievers have accounted for the most fWAR (2.1). It’s fair to say that guys from both groups have outperformed the early expectations, and the hope is that they will continue to punch above their perceived ability. One factor that will aid in keeping this success sustainable is the organizational philosophy shift to embracing the changeup.
The most well-documented Yankees pitcher to increase changeup usage is none other than the staff ace, Gerrit Cole. Tom wrote last month on how Cole has unlocked another level of dominance by featuring the offspeed more. Cole has shown that even as a top-two pitcher in the sport, there are always ways to improve, something he reiterates after every game.
Rather than using the changeup sparsely as a show-me pitch, Cole has featured it as a bonafide strikeout weapon that plays well off his four-seamer. Its increased usage — 15.1 percent or roughly double from his previous career rate — means batters cannot eliminate the pitch, allowing his fastball to play up even more. He has induced a career-high 42.4 percent whiff rate on the change, racking up 15 Ks in the process. In fact, by xwOBA it has been his best pitch overall, sitting at a microscopic .107.
One of the biggest surprises of the early season has been Kluber’s ability to shake off his slow start and flash glimpses of his Cy Young form. He struggled mightily in his first four outings, causing many (myself included) to question the decision to sign him for $11 million to be the team’s number two. Well, if there’s anything his last three starts have taught us, it’s that he’s far from finished, and a lot of that is thanks to the changeup.
Kluber really grabbed people’s attention with his eight inning shutout gem over the Tigers. He collected 13 whiffs on the changeup — six more than his previous career high — ringing up six batters in the process. After the game, he discussed how he and Kyle Higashioka were able to pick up on the area where the Detroit hitters were zeroing in, and that the changeup was the perfect weapon to exploit that tendency.
So far he has induced an astonishing 66.7 percent whiff rate on the change, and sits only a tick below Cole with a .118 xwOBA against the pitch. The pitch’s downward fading action in combination with Kluber’s newly-recovered pinpoint ability to locate the sinker/cutter combo makes the change a devastating offering.
Taillon appears to be the latest starter to hop on the changeup bandwagon. After giving up a home run to Cedric Mullins on the pitch in his first start, it looked like he would abandon the pitch altogether, instead focusing on the refinement of the four-seamer, curveball, and slider. But then in his start against the Nationals, he brought the change back. He threw 10 overall — three more than in his previous five starts combined — and induced two whiffs.
He went 6.1 innings and 99 pitches on Friday, both season-highs. He credited upping the usage of the change — and the secondary offerings in general — as factors that allowed him to put guys away and go deeper into the game. Additionally, he mentioned how he, Gary, and Matt Blake picked up on the Nationals’ swings and identified them cheating on the four-seamer, so they implemented the changeup and got some quick outs. Much has been made of Taillon’s inability to put batters away in two-strike counts, perhaps this newfound confidence in the changeup can help make him less predictable.
Jonathan Loaisiga has been maybe the biggest revelation of the Yankees pitching staff so far. Rocky outing versus Washington notwithstanding, Loaisiga has suppressed hard contact as well as any pitcher on staff. Much of that is due to his changeup.
He is throwing it more than ever at 26.1 percent, and has limited damage with it to the tune of a .219 xwOBA. The progress with the change is largely down to two factors. He is throwing it for strikes on the edge of the zone (54.2 percent edge rate). More importantly, it is exhibiting more break than at any point of his career. The 20.5 inches of fading action is 2.5 inches more movement than last season, meaning hitters are either pounding it into the dirt or whiffing altogether.
Even the newest Yankee appears to have bought into the changeup revolution. Peralta has sparkled since coming over from the Giants in the Mike Tauchman trade, turning in five innings of spotless relief. He has surrendered only two hits and no runs to go along with nine strikeouts in his first four outings in pinstripes.
Since arriving in the Bronx, Peralta has doubled his changeup usage, throwing it more than 60 percent of the time. He owns a 40 percent whiff rate and a measly .132 xwOBA on the season with the pitch, numbers which have improved drastically since joining the Yankees. It is possible that the change was part of what enticed the Yankees to acquire him, as he is getting more horizontal movement on the pitch than at any other point in his career.
It’s quite remarkable that Matt Blake and the rest of the Yankees pitching department have managed to take their starters’ fourth pitch and turn it into a legitimate swing-and-miss offering. There were sky-high expectations when the Yankees poached Blake from the Cleveland pitching factory that produced the likes of Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale. The pandemic likely delayed his ability to get his hands on the staff and exert his influence. Now that he has a year-plus under his belt with the organization, perhaps we are starting to see the effects of his instruction, the first sign being the weaponization of the changeup.