How the Marlins have Cracked the Changeup Code

Something is in the water in Miami.

With the Marlins making an improbable push for the 2020 postseason, the rebuild is finally starting to pay off early for the fish. The success of this turnaround has been built on the backs of the young Marlins pitching staff, featuring exclusively home grown and developed arms. 

What has made these arms successful? One glaring plus coming from multiple Marlins starting pitchers is that they rely heavily on what have proven to be lethal changeups. Per Statcast, Marlins starting pitchers have thrown the changeup on 19% of pitches, 7.2% above the big league average usage of 11.8%. With the staff having a lot of success, and the changeup being used far more often than average (Hernendez skews the numbers downward having thrown 27 CH on 453 of the 2618 pitches thrown by current Marlins staff), it is clear that the Marlins are teaching the pitch in a unique way; and it’s clear that the Marlins are developing the changeup better than most organizations.

The tight, late run on the changeup coupled with the spin induced drop screams two-seam laminar changeup

So what are they doing differently? It is not just the homegrown big leaguers that are throwing the top-of-the-line cambios, but several current prospects — who have yet to reach the show — are flourishing with their changeup development as well. Edward Cabrera, one of the Marlins’ top pitching prospects has seen his changeup grade rise from a 40 to a 55 in just over two years in the Marlins’ system — a heroic upgrade in such a short time.

The best way to evaluate a changeup is to compare it to the high velocity pitch in which it is countering — either a fastball or sinker. Therefore, I have put together a chart with current Marlins starters showcasing important fastball and changeup data to try and break it down. After all, if we can figure out the changeup speed and movement profiles, how they compare to the fastball, and why these pitches are effective for each arm, we may be able to figure out how the Marlins are teaching the pitch; and equally relevant, how they are tailoring this to each individual arm.

The above chart showcases the characteristics of Marlins pitchers’ fastballs and changeups, along with group averages. It is worth noting that each changeup is designed to compliment the fastball profile of the individual- averages are just to give you an idea of where the Marlins’ arms tend to live.

The first thing to look at when comparing a high velocity offering and a changeup is the difference in velocity between the two pitches. While the changeup is meant to be a change of pace (as implied in the name), it is not necessarily designed to have a massive velocity differential like a curveball. This is due to the fact that changeups are meant to throw off timing, inducing soft contact — usually in the form of a ground ball. While breaking pitches often do the same thing, they tend to be designed more as putaway pitches than they are contact based ones. 

The Marlins’ average fastball-changeup velocity difference in 2020 is 7.5 mph (per Statcast), less than the big league average of 8.7 mph. Additionally, the Marlins average weighted spin rate on the changeup is 1742 rpm, slightly lower than the MLB average of 1766 rpm. What these numbers suggest are a slightly harder changeup with a little bit more of a vertical break profile (keep the reason for more vertical break in the back of your mind). When evaluating Marlins’ changeups, this tends to hold true. Of the six pitchers listed in the chart above, four of the five qualified arms showcase vertical break above big league average (Hernandez, who only makes up for roughly 5% of the weighted average: 27/497 changeups, is subpar in movement characteristics). 

So the Marlins’ changeups come in a little harder and drop a little more — that can’t be the entire story though. We still have to cover horizontal break profiles, along with how the changeup movement plays in with the rest of the listed pitchers’ arsenals, particularly their primary, high velocity offerings. 

With Braxton Garrett not having thrown enough changeups to qualify, Elieser Hernandez throwing the changeup 5.9% of the time, and Trevor Rodgers catering his changeup to his unique arsenal (Rogers’ slider doesn’t drop or cut much, Marlins PD decided on low spin to give him vert break in arsenal to provide obvious movement differentiation from SL). Let’s look at Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, and Pablo Lopez –the guys who made the Marlins’ changeups nationally recognized. Let’s further break down what the player development team has been doing right.

The first thing that stands out from an analytical standpoint is that all three of the arms have a very small differential in fastball to changeup spin rates (weighted average difference of 251 rpm between the fastball and changeup, MLB average difference is 528 rpm). The high spin change suggests that they should have a solid amount of run on their pitches. This holds true, with all three showcasing above average, if not elite run on the change. However, the high spin changeup is in theory counterproductive to the idea of killing spin leading to better vertical break on the changeup. While it is true that low spin changeups will lead to more vertical break, these three arms manage to get vertical break above big league average on their changeups due to their high efficiency and more upright tilt. Sanchez, Lopez, and Alcantara showcase spin efficiency ratings of: 92.2, 87, and 86 percent on their changeups. This means that they are for the most part pretty efficient, maximizing much of their total spin as active spin.

Translation: the high efficiency means more spin induced break, including vertical, which leads to the plus vertical break that all three get. Couple that with the fact that they all throw two-seam changeups with a similar seam orientation to a sinker — which promotes additional vertical and horizontal break (laminar esque style changeup); this tells us how they get as much sharp movement as they do. All three also throw their changeups from at or around a 2:00 axis (Sixto and Pablo both at 2:00, Sandy 1:45). While closer to a 3:00 axis is considered the ideal for right handed changeup, the combination of seam orientation, higher relative velocity along with high active spin makes the 2:00 tilt more than enough to get the desired break profile. 

The changeup break profiles vs MLV average of the three arms we are focusing on show up in the circle. Lopez is the farthest to the left, with Sanchez above in the middle, and Alcantara just left/below the point of Sanchez. The other points on the chart are relief pitchers and two starters (Urena and Hernandez) that have subpar, rarely used changeups.

As shown by the chart above, all three pitchers showcase plus vertical and horizontal movement on their high velocity, high spin, high efficiency changeups. The higher spin rate promotes more horizontal movement when combined with tilt and seam orientation, giving us the dominant changeups that we have come to expect from Marlins pitchers.

This is the blueprint which the Marlins have used to develop plus changeups on arms that showcase high velocity fastballs with a hard slider as the other secondary pitch. All three (Sixto, Pablo, Sandy) have xBA’s of under .300 on the changeup, with Sanchez and Lopez’s xBA’s sitting at an outstanding .158 and .217 respectively. Alcantara’s changeup xBA lags a little behind at .279, and tends to get hit more due to the fact that his sinker (his main high velocity pitch) showcases more horizontal run than the four seam fastballs of Sanchez and Lopez. In other words, the run emphasizing changeup will not be as effective for Alcantara, as it looks more like a slower sinker than a different pitch altogether.

Despite that,  Sanchez and Lopez, who both throw the changeup the most, and whose changes have been the most highly regarded, have proven that this high velocity, high spin, efficient, laminar 2 seam changeup plays at an elite level in the big leagues. Why do theirs work better than Alcantara’s? They throw four-seam fastballs with less run than Alcantara. This means that their pitch profiles do not line up as similarly (there’s less arm side run); the effectiveness of the pitch, regardless of break profile goes up when it is different than the primary offering — as seen by their greater amount of success on the changeup.

As seen in this overlay, the fastball and changeup have very different break profiles. While the fastball does showcase armside run, the laminar style two seam change runs quite a bit more, while also diving down towards the dirt.

This is not where the story ends with Marlins’ player development and elite level changeups. As mentioned prior, Trevor Rogers throws a top of the line low spin change, focusing predominantly on vertical break (4.9in VB above MLB average including gravity). His efficiency on the changeup: 89.9%, right around the efficiencies of the others mentioned above; his tilt, at 9:45, is closer to the ideal than any other Marlins pitcher on the changeup. 

So what does this mean?

Not only are the Marlins developing interesting and unique ways to throw changeups (see Sixto, Sandy, Pablo), but on more standard changeups (spin rate relative to FB), they seem to have figured out how to ensure that their arms get proper tilt, and plus efficiency on a consistent level. While tilt can be taught via the emphasizing of pronation upon release, the efficiency, and the degree in which it can be maximized all depends on the slot, grip, degree of pronation resulting in tilt, and many more factors — the Marlins are clearly great at maximizing it.

All in all, the willingness of Miami’s Player Development Department to rethink the way in which changeups are thrown, and to cater the changeups to what suits an individual’s arsenal (particularly the fastball and how it compliments other offspeeds as well) is what has made them successful. While sequencing, biomechanical breakdowns, and deeper fastball/compliment analysis all contribute to the successful changeup development and execution, there is just too much information to throw together in one article. Regardless, the Marlins’ R&D department has clearly perfected their understanding of this magic analytic combo. The net net is, if you want to get the most out of your changeup, study the Marlins’ elite formula.

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