Lucas Giolito’s Secret Weapon is a… High Changeup?

Lucas Giolito has a pitch in his arsenal that when thrown up in the zone produces a whiff rate of 30.7%, a batting average against of 0.139, and a slugging percentage against of 0.278. If I told you to guess what pitch this was in his arsenal, you would logically assume that it is his high-spin, above average velocity fastball, right? That would make the most sense, would it not? With the increase in pitchers pumping and challenging hitters with high fastballs, which Giolito has also taken part in, it would make sense for that to be the pitch I am referring to here.

Well, it is not. It is… his changeup. His changeup!? A high changeup!? Yes, a high changeup. The pitch we have all been told our entire lives to never leave up in the zone is Giolito’s secret weapon.

Giolito’s high changeups for the sake of this article are defined as the changeups thrown in the 2021 season that were located in zone 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12 via BaseballSavant. Those changeups are plotted below.

Pitch Data via BaseballSavant

And yes, those high changeups have resulted in a whiff rate of 30.7%, a batting average against of 0.139, and a slugging percentage against of 0.278. They have also resulted in an xBA of 0.155 and an xWOBA of 0.166. So he is not just getting lucky. Also, Giolito’s high changeups account for 10.2% of his total pitches this season! So it is something he goes to quite frequently and as seen here, it has also been incredibly effective.

I first noticed Giolito throwing a high changeup in a Pitching Ninja video from Spring Training this year on March 17th where we see Giolito get a backwards K on the pitch.

And then came across it again from a tweet by Eno Sarris on April 1st of this year where he posted a video of Giolito inducing a pretty epic swing and miss from Josh Bell in the 2020 season in which Bell loses his bat on a high changeup.

In trying to comprehend why Giolito’s high changeups are so successful and why he has the ability to throw it for over 10% of his total pitches, I found a few factors that may begin to explain why. Before that, to get a better understanding of Giolito in general, let’s do a brief dive into his arsenal in this table below:

Data via BaseballSavant

One of the factors that attributes to Giolito’s success with the high changeup is his velocity differential between his fastball and changeup. In 2021, there has been an average differential of 12.2MPH from his fastball to his changeup. The average velocity differential between fastballs and changeups in the Major Leagues is 7.6MPH. Giolito boasts a velocity difference that is over 60% higher than Major League average. As pointed out by Eno Sarris in his tweet as well, that difference alone helps to make Giolito’s changeup an incredibly effective pitch. Also important to note is the high differential in spin rate between the two pitches of nearly 1000 RPM.

Furthermore, diving into the H-break and V-break movement charts for Giolito shows how well his changeup can play off his fastball. In the plot below, the solid outlined circles represent Giolito’s pitches and the dotted outlined circles represent league averages.

Picture via BaseballSavant

His changeup is not far off movement-wise from league average, in fact he has slightly less horizontal and vertical break than the league average on his changeup. However, what seems to be the difference maker for him is that his high spin fastball has 3.7 less inches of negative vertical break than league average (-11.8 inches vs. -15.5 inches). When hitters face Giolito, his fastball stays up 3.7 more inches than the hitter sees on the average fastball. Or more simply put, there is significantly more perceived rise on his fastball than the average pitcher. This higher perceived rise on his fastball makes the league average movement on his changeup a better offering to fool hitters, as there is an above average vertical break differential between the two offerings. This theoretically induces swings under his fastball and over his changeup. Also, these pitches have similar H-break as seen in the chart, making the pitches look even more similar in that regard which can presumably fool the hitter’s mind by thinking the incoming pitch is a 94MPH fastball and instead it is an 81MPH changeup. And all of this has led to a top 10 changeup in the league based on run value (-6 run value according to BaseballSavant).

A specific example of how this plays well for Giolito is the earlier Pitching Ninja clip from Spring Training. If the hitter sees that pitch coming in and it looks like a fastball, he is probably assuming that it is going to be significantly above the zone so he lays off. But instead, it is a changeup so instead of staying up, the pitch drops right down in the top of the zone for a called strike three.

Also, hitters have no idea when this high changeup is coming. He mixes it up incredibly well. When it comes to Giolito’s high changeups, he has no common sequencing that would give a hitter the hint that it is coming. His pitch selection before a high changeup is almost identical to his overall pitch selection. The table below is a breakdown of that pitch selection and a chart of his pitches before the high changeup in a plate appearance.

Data via BaseballSavant

Data via BaseballSavant

And when it comes to the counts in which he throws the high changeup, he also throws it in almost any count as well. Here is a table below showing the breakdown of the strike counts he throws it in. He is by far the most likely to throw it with zero strike in the count but still mixes it up well in every count. And the count he is most likely to throw it in is 0-0, another situation in which changeups are sometimes warned against.

Data via BaseballSavant

There is a great Pitching Ninja interview with Giolito in which he talks for a couple of minutes just about his changeup – the grip of the pitch, the style of the pitch, and how he uses it. Giolito points out what I was alluding to earlier in that he does not go for the Luis Castillo-esque, high movement changeup but rather focuses on velocity difference and making it look like his fastball in order to fool hitters.

If anyone is interested, here below is Giolito’s grip and changeup visualized using our BallR product.

Pitcher’s View

Catcher’s View

So to reiterate, Lucas Giolito’s secret weapon is in fact, yes, a high changeup. Nobody hits it and that is due to:

  1. The velocity differential between his fastball and changeup.
  2. How the two pitches play well off of each other due to his fastball’s high spin rate and above average perceived “rise”, changeup’s low spin rate, and with similar horizontal movement, they can look identical coming in at wildly different speeds.
  3. Giolito throws it whenever he so pleases, in whatever count, and after whatever pitch.

Giolito has been throwing his changeup more than ever before (and ones high in the zone of course) and he is not alone in that (maybe alone in the high changeup category however).

Check out the likes of Sandy Alcantara, Gerrit Cole, Ian Anderson, and Trevor Rogers in their increases in changeup usage and how that is helping their games out too.

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