For the past couple of years, I’ve spent part of the fantasy baseball preseason looking back at the best pitches of each pitch type from last year. This pitch review series has sort of become one of my favorite series of articles to write each year.
That’s for a couple of reasons—first, I love pitching and especially beautiful pitches (I mean, who doesn’t?). And second, inevitably I end up finding a pitcher here and there who’s throwing a nasty pitch that surprises me. Either way, this is a fun series, and we’re kicking it off with the five best changeups of last year.
A note before we get started: these are ranked by pVAL, a stat you can learn more about here. It’s far from perfect, but I think it’s one of the better stats we have available to give us a holistic idea of how effective a pitch was during the year.
It’s important to remember two things when dealing with pVAL. First, it skews to starters—pitches thrown frequently with good results are the ones that tend to have high pVALs, so you’re not typically going to see relievers on these lists.
Second, pVAL is not a predictive stat. It tells you what happened but isn’t necessarily a good indicator of what will happen in the future. There are certainly pitchers who have consistently high-pVAL pitches year-to-year, but there are plenty that fluctuate as well.
Anyways, enough introduction, here are the five best changeups of 2021.
Patrick Sandoval turned in a pretty impressive season, especially given his past two seasons ended with ERAs above 5.00 (with last year’s being 5.65). Sandoval ended the year with a 3.62 ERA (4.03 FIP) and a solid 25.9% strikeout rate, mostly on the back of this changeup.
Sandoval’s changeup was his most-thrown pitch, and with good reason. It posted a 41.5% chase rate, 28.7% SwStr rate, .213 wOBA against, and .070 ISO against. In short, it was a fantastic pitch, and I love that he used it so much.
In fact, it seems Sandoval toyed with his pitch mix last year. In 2019 and 2020, he primarily threw a fastball, but last year, he started throwing his changeup as his primary pitch with his fastball second and added a sinker.
All of that seems like it worked fairly well—Sandoval’s fastball was rough the past two years, posting a wOBA against over .400 each year, but in 2021, that dropped to .358. That’s still not great, but it seems like the fastball was a bit more effective as Sandoval started throwing his changeup more.
I’m curious what will happen next year. Sandoval seems like he’s playing around with his pitch mix, and the guy has a pretty great changeup alongside a slider that works pretty well as a secondary putaway pitch. He just has to work that fastball and/or sinker a bit better and I could see him posting pretty good numbers in the future.
Brett Anderson has been around for quite a while, bouncing around seven different teams since 2009 and landing with the Brewers the past two years.
All in all, Anderson wasn’t especially great last year, posting a 4.22 ERA with a 1.35 WHIP, and a 14.2% strikeout rate in 24 starts. But, he did have a pretty sweet changeup last year.
It wasn’t a big swing-and-miss pitch, posting a solid but not spectacular 32.3% chase rate and 9.7% SwStr rate, but it was exceptionally good at limiting hard contact, as hitters had just a .206 wOBA and .081 ISO against the pitch.
Anderson’s curveball was similarly good at limiting hard contact, with a .271 wOBA and .091 ISO against, but the rest of his arsenal was decidedly not good. His fastball? .381 wOBA against. Cutter? .436. Slider? .395. Not great, Bob.
Anderson’s a free agent now, who knows if he’ll land somewhere as a spot starter/long reliever, but for fantasy purposes, there’s nothing here.
If there have been two consistent things about Lucas Giolito over the past few years, it’s his fastball and his changeup both being excellent pitches.
But last year, it really was only his changeup, which was its usual awesome self, posting a 35.4% chase rate, 19.7% SwStr rate, and a .281 wOBA against. But his fastball was less awesome than it’s been in the past, largely because he had trouble commanding it more than he has in a couple years.
Last year, Giolito’s fastball posted a .33o wOBA against, which isn’t bad, it’s relatively average, but considering its wOBA against the previous two years was .260 and .278, that’s not great. On top of that, his ISO against was .176 and the pitch posted a 10.7% walk rate, the highest walk rate he’s had with his fastball since his rookie season.
Ultimately, Giolito turned in a great season, in part thanks to a slider that looked better than it ever has, but if he can’t rein in that fastball command, that could spell trouble.
I really don’t think Jordan Montgomery is getting enough appreciation for his season last year. Sure, a 3.83 ERA is good but not spectacular, and he posted a relatively average 24.5% strikeout rate, but given how much trouble/injuries he’s had since his rookie season, it’s great to see him out there pitching well.
Montgomery was actually featured in another recent article of mine—a look at seven under-the-radar players who were throwing money pitches last year. But here’s the funny thing—it wasn’t his changeup that was featured in the article, it was his curveball.
That’s right, The Bear had two fantastic pitches last year, leading with his changeup as his primary pitch, which posted a 21.7% SwStr rate, 33.2% chase rate, .233 wOBA against, and .117 ISO against. It was great all around, regardless of what hitters tried to do against it.
And that curveball? Like I said, it was a money pitch, posting a 41.2% chase rate, 40.5% zone rate, and 20.7% SwStr rate, to go alongside a .217 wOBA and .072 ISO against.
So what exactly was holding Montgomery back from having an even better season? Two things—his sinker and, to a lesser extent, his cutter.
Last year, Montgomery’s sinker got knocked around to the tune of a .418 wOBA against, though luckily for him, it was mostly weak contact, as hitters had just a .130 ISO against the pitch. Still, it’s not great that your third most-thrown pitch is getting hit as much as that sinker did.
And while his cutter was his least-thrown pitch, he still threw it over 300 times, and it got hammered to the tune of a .203 ISO against and a .377 wOBA against.
I’m extremely curious what might happen if he tweaked his pitch mix more. I love that he’s pitching backwards, going with a changeup/curveball combo as his primary two pitches, but if he started using his fastball more (which was pretty decent last year, better than his sinker and cutter), he might be able to cut down on some of the contact even more.
Either way, if he keeps this up and stays healthy, the future looks bright for Jordan Montgomery.
1. José Suarez
Our top changeup of the year! If I had been asked to guess the top changeup of the year, I can’t say Suarez would’ve been a guess, but man was his changeup good.
Last year, the pitch posted a 38.8% chase rate, 20.4% SwStr rate, a .172 wOBA against, and a .061 ISO against. It was a top-notch pitch by just about every metric you can imagine, and was a big reason why Suarez turned in a pretty decent 3.75 ERA last year.
In fact, Suarez’s repertoire in general was pretty solid. His curveball worked as a get-me-over pitch that generated weak contact (it didn’t get many swings and misses though), and his sinker also did a pretty solid job generating weak contact.
The problem? His fastball, and man it was a big problem.
Last year, the pitch had a .394 wOBA and .252 ISO against, it got crushed, and it was his most-thrown pitch. It really makes me wonder what might happen if he tweaked his repertoire a bit (something I say about so many pitchers), because if he keeps tossing that awful fastball hundreds of times a year, his ERA is going to look close to his 4.12 FIP and 4.44 SIERA.
Photo by Stephen Hopson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)