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The best changeup on the St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Martinez?

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In 2015, we will have the opportunity to experience something from a starting pitcher that Cardinals fans have not seen in quite some time: Someone who has the potential to have three or even four plus pitches in his repertoire.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you have read my article on the sinker of Carlos Martinez or follow me on Twitter, I have made it pretty clear that I am extraordinarily high on his changeup as well. I have gone as far as saying that it has the potential to be the very best one on the entire Cardinals staff. But what about Michael Wacha's? I wrote about his (and Trevor Rosenthal's, for that matter) last July. And Marco Gonzales's? You guessed it, I wrote about that one, too. For a fan of changeups, it is clear that I follow the correct major league team because all three of the mentioned pitchers have very good changeups.

Before getting into Martinez's, let's very quickly revisit those that I've already written about in the past. In short, Wacha is a wildcard going into the 2015 season. Though he flashed a brilliant changeup in 2013, he threw it less often and at the same time, experienced slightly less success with the pitch last season. With his unique shoulder injury, it remains to be seen whether or not his 2013 changeup usage and success will return for the 2015 season. A key thing to keep an eye on next season (and beyond) is Wacha's fastball velocity. If it's down to 92-93 MPH, which is probably what is best for the health of his shoulder, the possibility exists that it will have a negative effect on his changeup.

After barely throwing a changeup as rookie in 2012, Rosenthal's changeup is now an integral component of his repertoire—even if he’s just using it to break up the repetition of his fourseamers in a given outing. After a sequence of three or four straight 97+ MPH fastballs, the mere threat of dropping in an 86-89 MPH changeup can be devastating on an overmatched hitter. Rosenthal has had ample success with this pitch in his career, but until he uses it more consistently on a month-by-month basis, it's hard to consider it the "best on staff." However, as you will see when I discuss Martinez's, I do tend to favor changeups in pitchers with electric fastballs.

What about Gonzales and his left-handed beauty of a changeup? I wrote nearly 1000 words on it already, so I do not have much more to add other than the fact that lacking an overpowering fastball may negatively affect his changeup long-term, especially as video of his outings accumulate. Having an over-powering fastball isn't a necessity (because setting the fastball up with the changeup can make it appear "over-powering"), so if Gonzales is able to become a professional "pitch locater," he just may be able to obtain "best on staff" status.

Finally, El Gallo time. At present, I must use a qualifier ("potential") when discussing Martinez's changeup because for some reason, he seemingly abandoned the pitch his first year in the big leagues (2013: 4.11% usage rate), despite many scouting reports projecting it as being a plus pitch for him, and the sample size is far too small (158 pitches). He went to it more in 2014 (9.26%), but this is still down from the usage rate you'd expect if it is indeed the "best on the staff." As frames of reference, Wacha's usage rate is 22.25%, Rosenthal's is 13.26%, and Gonzales's is 25.80%.

Outcomes data

Pitch Total Frequency Velocity Dragless horizontal mov. Whiffs Whiffs/Swing BIP HR
Changeup 158 7.68% 88.82 MPH -8.18 inches 17.72% 40.00% 13.29% 0.00%

His changeup velocity basically varies from 86.5 MPH to 89.5 MPH—as fast as some fastballs and much faster than most changeups. As a changeup, it shouldn't technically "over-power" any hitters, but at this velocity, it has the potential to, especially if the hitter is sitting on his breaking ball (~85 MPH). As I mentioned in a previous article, comparing horizontal movements in a vacuum isn't all that beneficial, but just know that his changeup has a lot of arm-side tail on it (more than his fourseamer, but slightly less than his sinker).

Essentially, Martinez's changeup does a good job at mimicking the ball flights of his fastballs (at a decreased velocity)—a good recipe for success. He gets a significant amount of swings and misses (40.00%), foul balls (30.00%), and very few balls are actually put in play (his 13.29% is the lowest of the four pitchers I've looked at) as you will see below. Overall, it is easy to understand that having more swings and misses (17.72%) than balls in play (13.29%) is desirable.

Results data

AB K BB AVG SLG ISO BABIP
35 14 3 .143 .171 .029 .238

When looking at results, thirty-five at bats ending in changeups is an extremely small sample size, and it must be approached accordingly. Thus, what we see in the table above is largely "for what it's worth" content. However, remembering the data seen in the "outcomes" table shows he has the ability to sustain successful results with the pitch. Will he be able to hold hitters to a .029 ISO over 100, 200, or even 300 (or more) at bats? Almost certainly not, but it wouldn't be unreasonable for him to hold hitters to an ISO at or below .075, either.

For your viewing pleasure: Three-pitch strikeout of Carlos Gomez

Martinez Change

The sequence of this at bat was sinker (96.5 MPH), changeup (88.8 MPH), and changeup (86.8 MPH), and it resulted in three straight swings (no surprise with the free-swinging Gomez). To be honest, the location of the strikeout pitch was not ideal, and one of the big reasons he "got away with it" was because Gomez was not at all expecting Martinez to throw two changeups in a row (as shown by the bat flying out of his hands). This is definitely a case of the threat of a pitcher's over-powering fastball significantly augmenting the success of his changeup.

Bottom line

A changeup can have terrific movement and be thrown with good arm action, but to reach "best on staff" status, it must be paired with an effective fastball. That's just the nature of a changeup. Fortunately for Martinez, his fastballs are not only effective but electric, with the ability to touch 100 MPH in any given outing. As stated at the Winter Warm Up, Martinez spent some time working with Pedro Martinez this offseason. We all know how great Pedro's fastballs and changeup were. Let's hope Martinez gained some valuable insight from his experience with the Hall-of-Famer. I look forward to seeing Martinez's sample size of changeups increase next season as I will undoubtedly be revisiting this topic in the future.

Credit to BrooksBaseball.net for the pitch data and @mstreeter06 for the beautiful GIF.