It’s still early in the season and statistics are basically irrelevant at this point, but in the case of new St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Drew VerHagen, there is something we can glean from looking at his stats.
He has only made two appearances and thrown just 3 2⁄3 innings but he has already thrown as many changeups this year as he did in his previous two big league seasons, spanning 114 1⁄3 innings.
Yep, That’s right. VerHagen has already thrown 14 changeups this year, according to Baseball Savant, and he threw exactly 14 combined between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Sure there is a small sample size problem, but one thing is clear - he is using the pitch a lot more this year. In fact, the most changeups he has ever thrown in a single year is 25. It’s pretty hard not to see VerHagen topping that easily this season.
I don’t have his pitch mix data from Japan, but I would imagine that he refined his changeup there and his higher usage of the pitch this season is simply a carry-over from his last two seasons overseas. It looks like he’ll be using five pitches this year instead of only four, adding a changeup to his sinker, four-seamer, curveball, and slider.
This is certainly interesting, but it’s just two appearances and VerHagen has thrown only 14 changeups, so why write an article about it? Well it’s because VerHagen’s changeup might not be a changeup anymore.
It’s early in the year, so it’s impossible to draw any conclusions this soon. That makes it hard to write any articles about significant trends, so that’s not what I will try to do here. Rather, I will point out a significant difference in one of VerHagen’s offerings and look at what it could mean if it is in fact a real change that holds over the course of the season.
Baseball Savant classifies VerHagen’s offspeed pitch as a changeup. That’s why I began this article by calling it a changeup. But there is something to notice about the pitch. It has changed since the last time he pitched in the states.
VerHagen’s Changeup Movement
|Year||Vertical Movement (in)||Horizontal Movement (in)|
|Year||Vertical Movement (in)||Horizontal Movement (in)|
This is a significantly different movement pattern than what the pitch has shown in recent MLB seasons. Generally pitches tend to break the same. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but usually it’s the same pattern. This is not the same.
VerHagen has gained nearly five inches of drop with the pitch while losing some run. One might say that’s a different pitch and Brooks Baseball does. In fact, Brooks Baseball calls it a splitter instead of a changeup. The two pitches move in a similar way, though splitters tend to drop more and changeups tend to run more, so it can be easy to mix them up when classifying them, except this is the first time that Brooks Baseball has ever called VerHagen’s changeup a splitter.
None of the ‘changeups’ thrown by VerHagen this year have been classified as changeups by Brooks. This season, Brooks Baseball says that VerHagen has thrown 12 splitters (I don’t know why there is a discrepancy between Brooks (12) and Savant (14)) and zero changeups.
Brooks has never before identified VerHagen’s offspeed pitch as a splitter. It has always been called a changeup, which even further confirms the different movement pattern.
There is a difference between how Brooks and Savant classify pitch types, but it is telling that this is the first year there has been a difference. In an interview he did in 2014, VerHagen referred to the pitch as a hybrid changeup-splitter but said that “it’s more of a change than a split.” That still seems to be the case today, but he seems to have leaned more into the splitter side of it than he did in his last time in the States.
His spin rate has also dropped from 2127 rpms in 2019 to 1810 rpms in 2022. A true splitter has a much lower spin rate, as evidenced by Blake Parker (804 rpms) and Casey Mize (1103 rpms), and so far this year, VerHagen has leaned into that, though he hasn’t gotten as low as a normal splitter.
Still, taking a changeup and giving it more drop and decreasing it’s spin is a great way to make it act more like a splitter.
To clear up the controversy regarding the name of the pitch, VerHagen himself referred to the pitch as a changeup when talking to John Denton in the spring. So, from here on out, I will call it a changeup (even though splangeup or chlitter would be fun).
This pitch may be a key to VerHagen’s season as it might be a new weapon for him, and one that is especially geared toward getting outs against lefties.
In his career, VerHagen has allowed a career .370 wOBA against lefties and a career .318 wOBA against righties. In the previously mentioned interview with John Denton, VerHagen said that he really needed to learn how to get lefties out in Japan because opposing teams would stack lefties in the lineup against him.
He said that he learned to throw four-seamers in and changeups out to be effective against lefties, which means that he did in fact learn how to throw changeups while in Japan. So, I won’t be surprised if this pitch becomes a significant part of his arsenal this year.
If it’s effective, then he may get a shot to join the rotation if any injuries arise. At the very least, he will need to be able to get lefties out as a reliever since there is a three batter minimum.
(As a side note since I mentioned his four-seamer, VerHagen hardly threw his four-seam fastball before going to Japan, but he has already thrown 20 of them this season and 15 to lefties. I may take a more comprehensive look at VerHagen’s changes and their effects in a later article when there is more statistically significant data to look at.)
I would still expect VerHagen to primarily be a sinker/slider guy, but the fact that he has tweaked, and basically added, a changeup (and a four-seamer) to his arsenal is a good sign that he is an improved pitcher from his first go-around with the majors. It sounds like his changeup (and his four-seamer) are here to stay, which just gives hitters more to prepare for, especially if he can manipulate his changeup.
Example 1: Take a look at this changeup thrown to righty Andrew McCutchen. Notice the downward movement.
Example 2: Take a look at this changeup he threw to lefty Rowdy Tellez. Notice the horizontal movement.
Did you notice the difference? The first one dove toward the ground while the second one had a lot of arm side run. That’s almost two different pitches. The first moves more like a splitter while the second moves more like a true changeup. If VerHagen can continue to manipulate the pitch this way, then he essentially has two separate offerings to give to hitters.
This is a big change for VerHagen. Last time he was stateside, he hardly threw a changeup. Now he is throwing the pitch more and seems to be able to manipulate it so that it moves differently.
Again, let’s not get too carried away here. It is just 14 pitches. I am not saying that this pitch is going to completely remake VerHagen or allow him to be a much more effective pitcher. We still need to wait and see. Rather, I am identifying an early trend.
This is something that I will be watching for every time VerHagen takes the mound. A good changeup is my favorite pitch in all of baseball, so I am extra excited to see if this pitch can become a weapon for VerHagen. If it does, then I will be much higher on his chances of being an effective Major League pitcher.
VerHagen is someone who will need to rely on command and pitch variety if he is going to succeed, so a revamped changeup is a good early sign for the 31-year-old, even if it’s way too early to make any conclusions about him.