I love pitching. I’ve probably started about a thousand pieces here at Pitcher List with that exact phrase, but it’s true, I really do love pitching, and that’s why each year for the past few years, I’ve done what I call my pitch review series (it really needs a better name, please help me with one), in which I take a look at the five best pitches of each pitch type from the previous year.
How do I determine which pitches were best? They’re ranked by pVAL, which is, in my opinion, the best available (though an admittedly imperfect) way to rank these pitches.
If you’re not familiar with pVAL and want to know more about how it works, check out this article. It’s also important to note that pVAL is not the end all be all for how well a pitch performed. In fact, like I said, pVAL is far from perfect (especially in a short season like 2020) and it’s not predictive either.
But it is useful for the purposes of this article, and if I’m being perfectly honest with you, the real purpose of these articles in this series is to look at some nasty pitches from the previous year and enjoy the art of pitching, and that’s fun.
I’ll be posting more articles in the coming days and weeks of the best of other pitch types, but today, we’re going to kick the series off with changeups! So let’s get to it!
5. Johnny Cueto
He’s still got it. Or, I guess, he’s still got something.
The heyday of Johnny Cueto dominating on the mound is long gone, but Cueto’s still around and still throwing some nasty pitches while he bobbles around on the mound.
Last year, Cueto came back from injury to pitch 63.1 innings and a 5.40 ERA with a 4.64 FIP and a 20.2% strikeout rate (his best strikeout rate since 2017).
Not great numbers, mostly thanks to a fastball that has lost a lot of steam over the years as Cueto has gotten older, dropping from almost 95 MPH on average during his prime to about 91-92.
Unfortunately, Cueto hasn’t figured out how to compensate for the lost velocity, because that fastball got absolutely crushed last year, to the tune of a .313 ISO and .462 wOBA against.
But his changeup? It was still a top-notch strikeout pitch, posting a 35.1% chase rate, 14.6% SwStr rate, and a .233 wOBA against. So hey, at least he has that going for him, right?
Love me some Sixto, and especially Sixto’s changeup. I featured this pitch in my article looking at nine under-the-radar pitchers with money pitches, and man was Sanchez’s changeup impressive.
Last year, the pitch had a 45.9% chase rate, 18.3% SwStr rate, and a .156 wOBA against, not to mention a .000 ISO against, which, in 153 pitches, is really impressive.
No doubt Sixto had his share of problems though. He had a slider that operated as a solid swing-and-miss pitch but got hit a bit with a .349 wOBA against, and he threw a sinker that posted a rough .380 wOBA against, but it’s also important to remember that Sanchez is young, and he’s got the ingredients to be a really interesting pitcher.
3. Hyun-Jin Ryu
If you’re familiar with Ryu as a pitcher, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise seeing him on this list. Ryu’s changeup has been awesome for a while now. It was the most-chased pitch of 2019 among starters, it was the second-best changeup by pVAL in 2019 (featured in last year’s edition of this article), and 2020 was no different.
The changeup was Ryu’s most-thrown pitch last year (which was also the case in 2019) and it posted a 44% chase rate, 17.5% SwStr rate, .231 wOBA against, and a .076 ISO against. Basically, it was, yet again, an absolutely phenomenal pitch that helped propel Ryu to his third-straight season with an ERA under 3.00.
I do worry a bit about Ryu’s fastball, given how bad it was last year (.404 wOBA against, .220 ISO against), but even so, he doesn’t throw the pitch a ton, and his changeup/cutter/curveball combination is just so good.
The first of two Padres on this list, Chris Paddack struggled a good bit last year after an excellent rookie campaign in 2019, posting a 4.73 ERA, 5.02 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP in 59 innings.
Now, as I’m sure you’ve heard roughly a trillion times so far and will continue to hear all offseason, 2020 was a short season and it’s really hard to draw too many conclusions from the year. For Paddack’s purposes, 59 innings isn’t a whole lot, and in a normal season, what he experienced might just be considered a cold streak, but it’s what we have to work with.
The biggest issue Paddack had last year was his fastball. He didn’t command it as well as he did in 2019 and he paid for it with a .413 wOBA and .350 ISO against, both very very gross numbers.
But his changeup? It was beautiful, posting a 43.3% chase rate, 17.7% SwStr rate, .218 wOBA against, and a .088 ISO against. It was awesome in 2019, it was awesome yet again this year.
I have complete faith that Paddack will turn things around, I’m not going to let 59 innings decide for me that Paddack suddenly is bad now or something. Certainly it’s worth noting, the innings happened, the bad fastball was very much there (as was his curveball, which he also had some command issues with), but I think Paddack can turn things around.
1. Zach Davies
The other Padre on this list (who is now a Cub), Davies had yet another season in which he was really good and defied the analytics.
In 2019, he posted a 3.55 ERA that came with a 5.43 SIERA and 4.56 FIP, and analysts everywhere were worried about the likelihood he repeats his performance. Then, last year, he comes out and posts a 2.71 ERA with a 3.88 FIP and 4.32 SIERA. And not only that, he amped his strikeout rate to a career-best 22.8%.
A sub-3.00 ERA pitcher is not who Davies is (or, at least, not who I think he is), but I do think he has the tools to be a really solid starting pitcher, and that changeup is key to his approach.
Last year, Davies threw his changeup more than any other pitch in his repertoire, and I love that. It’s clearly his best pitch and has been for a while. Last year, it posted a 46.5% chase rate, 20.4% SwStr rate, and a .246 wOBA against, all ridiculously good numbers.
So of course it should be his most-thrown pitch! I am a noted proponent of pitching backward, and it looks like Davies was pitching a little backward last year, decreasing his sinker usage and increasing his changeup usage, splitting them almost evenly in his repertoire.
I do worry a bit about Davies’ strikeout potential for fantasy purposes, given his lack of another swing-and-miss pitch like his changeup, but with a solid sinker and cutter supporting his fantastic changeup, Davies has a really nice approach that I think could continue to propel him into fantasy relevance this year.
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