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An update on the changeup of Carlos Martinez

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Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Back in January, I composed a PITCHf/x analysis of Carlos Martinez's changeup—concluding that the pitch had the potential (largely limited by a small sample size) to be the very best on staff and that it was something to keep an eye on as he entered the starting rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals. Soon thereafter, as pitchers commenced spring warmups in Jupiter, Derrick Goold, of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, reported that Martinez was throwing his changeup "far more often" in workouts. It was something I monitored closely throughout spring, noticing that Martinez had indeed been going to the change more frequently in his spring starts.

With one regular season outing complete (opening night in Chicago), I was finally able to take a look at the PITCHf/x data of the pitch using BrooksBaseball. Of course, he only threw five of them in a one-inning relief appearance, but this accounted for 25% of his pitches thrown—possibly signifying a change in approach, particularly versus left-handed batters. For comparative purposes, here is the data for the changeup he threw Sunday night as well as the 2014 data (a larger sample size) on his fourseamer and sinker:

Pitch Velocity (MPH) Dragless H. movement (in.) Dragless V. movement + gravity (in.)
Changeup (CH) 86.57 -16.4 -30.31
Sinker (SI) 96.48 -12.86 -22.19
Fourseamer (FA) 98.06 -6.41 -13.29

As you can see, there is a 10 to 11.5 MPH velocity difference (or for those who prefer percentages: 10.3% to 11.7%) between Martinez's changeup and his sinker and fourseamer, which is optimal for deceiving a batter (i.e. leading to more swings and misses or inducing weak contact). Martinez's changeup doesn't stop there, though. As we already know, all of Martinez's pitches have an incredible amount of movement on them, particularly horizontal movement (or tailing action when referring to fastballs and changeups).

Thus, for El Gallo's changeup to be a consistently successful weapon for him, it needs to mimic his fastballs' (mainly his sinker) tailing ball flights for as long as possible before "dropping off the table" due to gravity's effect on its slower velocity and the inherent nature of an offspeed pitch. Well, if he is able to maintain Sunday night's changeup over the course of this season and beyond, I have no doubt in saying that it will become the best changeup on staff. It not only follows a near-identical path of his sinker, but it also shows the potential to tail even more than his devastating sinker, something he was unable to do last season. Whether this is due to a slight shift in his changeup grip or increased confidence now that he has a defined role, I don't know, and I am not sure it really matters.

Let's now take a closer look at Martinez's strikeout of Miguel Montero on opening night:

Pitch

Pitch sequence: FA (93.70 MPH), FA (94.80 MPH), SI (92.95 MPH), CH (86.28 MPH), CH (85.64 MPH), CH (85.25 MPH)

At this point in the game, Montero was timed up to Adam Wainwright's fastball (~90 MPH) and cutter (~87 MPH), so Martinez clearly had the advantage going into the at bat. Yet, given Montero's career 110 wRC+ versus RHPs and the fact that the Cardinals hadn't put the Cubs out of reach (score was 3-0), it was destined to be a battle. Naturally, knowing who pitched before him, Martinez (and Yadier Molina, of course) decided to start Montero off with three straight fastballs—a type of lively fastball he likely hadn’t yet seen this season.

Falling behind in the count, Martinez deployed a rare, but deadly "changeup-changeup-changeup" sequence, dialing down the velocity slightly with each pitch. Also, whether this was on purpose or not (given Yadi's cerebral approach to the game, I'd like to think it was purposeful), Martinez's pitch immediately prior the three-changeup sequence was a sinker down and away, the pitch and location that most resembles his changeup out of the hand. By doing this, Montero had to "guard against" the sinker for the remainder of the bat.

The GIF below is a beautiful illustration of the point I am trying to make—on 3-2, Montero expected Martinez to return to his sinker, and out of the hand, it appeared that this is exactly what Martinez had done. Unfortunately for Montero, it was yet another changeup, and he was way ahead of the offering for strike three.

Bottom line

There are two major concerns regarding the future of Carlos Martinez as a starting pitcher. One focuses on whether or not he can be efficient enough to be an effective starting pitcher. I did not address that in this post, but I did discuss it when I wrote about how I hope to see more sinkers from Martinez in 2015. The other is the fact that left-handed batters have a career .293/.383/.440 slash against him. To be frank, the sinker/changeup combination will be the primary reason behind Martinez's improvement versus left-handed batters going forward.

Credit to BrooksBaseball for PITCHf/x data and @ThePitcherList for the GIF.