(Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)
Nasty movement on pitches is something baseball fans crave. Watching Chaz Roe and Adam Ottavino throw their mythical sliders is incredibly fun. Movement is awesome, but it is not among the the most important things for success on individual pitches. Pitch movement is not a necessity for a pitcher. There are so many ways to create deception with pitches: sequencing, location, velocity, spin, etc. That being said, raw movement can contribute to a pitch. Especially when discussing off speed and breaking pitches. These pitches generate a certain amount of deception from their movement. Pitchers like more movement on their pitches.
I say this because Sean Newcomb is doing something a little odd. Here is a typical Newcomb changeup:
It just…doesn’t do much. It’s not a pitch that appeals to the fan eye. We love to see changeups that disappear underneath bats and make hitters look silly. This pitch isn’t that. It has horizontal movement that is more than three inches below league average. It does have some late late bite, but it does not move all that differently than his fastball. And Newcomb didn’t throw many of these as a rookie in 2017. He’s a fastball pitcher that has a strong curveball to pair with it. But every starter needs that third pitch, so Newcomb worked in the changeup about 10% of the time last year. He understandably was hesitant to use it, as the pitch surrendered a 150 wRC+. He survived though, posting a 4.19 FIP across nine starts.
In 2018, Newcomb has turned his off speed usage on it’s head. His changeup usage has doubled and his curveball usage is down more than 8%. It makes sense that he has tried to establish the changeup more, but using the pitch significantly more than a breaking ball that generated 66% and ground balls and allowed a .266 slugging rate last season is strange. Most people would be uninspired by the way the pitch looks. However, he’s taken that underwhelming looking changeup and made it his featured secondary offering.
On Sunday, Newcomb strayed from his old self to a significant extent. He went out and threw 32 changeups and nine curveballs. The start before that, he threw 35 changeups and 11 curveballs. Newcomb threw more changeups than curves in a start only three times last season. This year, he has done it in six out of his eight starts. It’s defying the pitcher he established himself as. And it’s working. Check out his rolling averages for curveball and changeup usage along with his strikeout rate for his career:
The strikeout rate is slowly, but steadily, trending upwards while the changeup use is skyrocketing. Newcomb possesses a 2.51 ERA so far in 2018, which is backed by a 3.08 FIP. The changeup isn’t necessarily outperforming the curveball, but establishing a consistent three pitch mix has elevated his overall performance significantly. Compare his pitch sequencing by count with the two off speed pitches against right-handed hitters. This is Newcomb in 2017:
This is Newcomb in 2018:
One of the best measurements of confidence for an individual off speed pitch is using it as a put away pitch and a pitch to earn strikes. Newcomb is consistently using his changeup when behind in counts and pairing it with his curveball to make an unpredictable combination with two strikes. Take this sequence from April against Chris Ianneta:
Newcomb starts with a well-thrown hook that nearly induces a swing. It’s well located but just low.
Down in the count, Newcomb does what he has done so often this season. He throws his changeup, perfectly placed low and away. Now, he is knotted up again.
Newcomb comes back with another changeup, located just as well as the first. He catches the corner of the plate for another called strike and is now ahead. Three straight off speed pitches to start Ianetta. All to set up this:
You can’t forget what Newcomb’s bread and butter is. He throws his heater with two strikes nearly 60% of the time. He elevated a 94mph fastball to send down his opponent. Newcomb’s versatility of his three pitches is exceptional. He uses each one confidently for strikes and whiffs. Again, the development of his changeup hasn’t made the pitch a world-beater. It’s established an unpredictability to his pitch sequencing that has made him look great to start the year.
Newcomb’s changeup is a strange pitch. It clocks in close to 90mph consistently, but he averages only 92.7mph on his fastball. It does not move much and, at times, looks awfully similar to his fastball. Perhaps that is how Newcomb is trying to manipulate the pitch. To make it look like a fastball out of the hand and get them out in front. We don’t know. But he’s proved so far this season that he does not need the exceptional movement on the pitch that is desired. Despite the shortcomings of the raw stuff on the changeup, he is making it work. And that is all that’s important.
Newcomb has been odd this year. His off speed pitch usage is out of whack from what he made us expect last season. He’s taken a pitch that looks uninspiring and made it a staple of his pitching style. Sean Newcomb is changing things up for the better.