CC Sabathia’s better than expected changeup


When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia last offseason, everyone pretty much knew what he was. He was a dominant, hard throwing lefthander that put you away with his hard slider. However, as the 2009 season went on, something became very apparent about the big guy: he had a damn good changeup. We saw many a righthanded batter flail at the low-and-away change last season, and there’s perhaps no better example of this than Jayson Werth in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the World Series. With runners on first and second in a two-run game, CC threw Werth five changeups in a seven pitch at-bat, getting two swings and misses, the last for an inning ending strikeout.

FanGraphs’ pitch values say that Sabathia’s change was worth 3.59 runs above average per 100 pitches in 2009, which was the best mark in the American League. And not by a small margin, either. Felix Hernandez’s changeup was second at 2.63 runs above average, almost a full run difference. This isn’t a one time fluke thing either. CC had one of the game’s 15 best changeups in 2006 (1.33), 2007 (1.65), and 2008 (2.30) as well. In case you didn’t already notice, his changeup has gotten more and more effective in each of the last four (really five) seasons.

I was completely oblivious Sabathia’s changeup before he wore pinstripes, so I asked Keith Law if it was always a good pitch for him. “Yes, but he didn’t use it much,” said KLaw, and he’s right. Over the last three seasons, CC has thrown his changeup approximately 19% of the time. During the five seasons prior to that, he threw it just ~13% of the time. All those extra changeups came the expense of his curveball, which went from being used 15.5% of the time in 2005 to so little that it registered with FanGraphs as being used 0.0% of the time last year. I know he threw at least a handful in 2009, I remember seeing them.

I’ve always felt that a knockout changeup was the most dominant pitch in baseball. If you could throw it with identical arm speed to your fastball and keep the separation between the two pitches to around 10 mph or so, then forget it, batters had no chance no matter how hard you throw because they’re unable to tell the two pitches apart until it’s too late. Just look at Trevor Hoffman, or Tom Glavine, or Johan Santana, or Pedro in his prime. All dominant changeup guys. I’m not suggesting that CC can be like that, but he has a clear cut weapon against righty batters now, and that makes him even more dangerous than he already is.

Over the course of his career, Sabathia has evolved from a dominant power guy that relied on a fastball-slider-curve combo to get by, though like most young pitchers he had trouble with the free pass (4.22 BB/9 in his first two seasons). Now he’s a fastball-changeup-slider pitcher that is stingy with walks (2.03 BB/9 over the last four years) and baserunners in general. He’s not just a meathead thrower folks, CC’s a pitcher, as the old schoolers are wont to say.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Categories : Analysis


  1. pete says:

    is it so underappreciated? I remember thinking it was his best pitch pretty early in the season. I think part of what makes it so good though is that he’s a hard-throwing lefty with a good slider and a solid curveball. Righties just don’t expect him to throw a straight changeup. He also used it perfectly. I remember him setting up righties for that slider down and in just obviously enough for them to prepare for it, only to have the changeup come and move in the other direction.

    • Mike Axisa says:

      You’re right, I changed the title to make it more appropriate.

    • Mattingly's Love Child says:

      It is underappreciated by the main-stream fans. Those people who frequent sites like RAB all pay attention to what is actually happening in a game, not just “whats I seen with mine own eyes”. You are a more advanced fan, hence you notice that money changeup.

      CC does a masterful job of setting up that change. Despite his being a horse, having a great pitch like the changeup that is not physically taxing on the body is a great way for CC to be a very good pitcher for a long time (just ask Jamie Moyer and Tom Glavine).

      • pat says:

        You throw the changeup with the exact same arm action as a fastball the only difference is it starts almost in the palm of your hand and the extra contact is what gives it the extra spin and slows it down. It isn’t more or less taxing on the arm than a FB.

        • pat says:

          The reason it works so well with old guys is that as long as it looks the same as a FB but has less velocity and more movement it will work well off a 96 mph fastball or an 86 mph fastball.

        • d-ness says:

          I think he was actually talking about using a changeup as opposed to other, more damaging pitches such as curveballs and splitfingers. The fastball is great all day, as is the change, but the torque on the arm with those breaking pitches is where the problems arise.

  2. Mattingly's Love Child says:

    Wasn’t McCarver going crazy in the playoffs about his “power changeup”? The few games that I got my wife to watch, she didn’t really understand how a slower pitch could be a “power” pitcher.

  3. MattG says:

    “I’ve always felt that a knockout changeup was the most dominant pitch in baseball.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I don’t understand why organizations don’t make sure their pitchers develop a change-up. Why can’t everyone throw a good one?

    I’m serious. As I understand it, you throw your fastball with a different grip, and let physics do the rest. Obviously, I am missing something–what?

    • Mike Axisa says:

      It’s not that easy. Some guys just don’t have big enough hands for it. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

      • Reggie C. says:

        Does CC’s change now rival that thrown by Johan Santana?

        • pete says:

          Not exactly. The pitch itself is a much less impressive pitch – Johan’s has more speed differential and much more break. What makes CC’s just as effective is that he A) has a better fastball, B) has a better slider, and C) uses his changeup a little less often than Johan, making it more effective.

    • Mattingly's Love Child says:

      Well for one it is counter-intuitive to throw a slower pitch with the same arm speed. A lot of guys never get the hang of that. They unconsciously slow down while throwing it.

    • dudes says:

      Much of your grip strength stems from the thumb, index, and middle fingers. As an exercise, focus on using your ring and pinky fingers (and thumb) for everyday tasks that involve your hands–writing, opening a jar, turning pages, etc. It’s not easy. Now, imagining using your weakest fingers to hurl a baseball with full arm speed.

    • I’m serious. As I understand it, you throw your fastball with a different grip, and let physics do the rest. Obviously, I am missing something–what?

      What I think you’re missing is the quality of the pitch, namely, the difference in velocity.

      Every fastball pitcher can probably change the grip and lessen the wrist snap (while maintaining the same arm speed) to throw a changeup that’s 3-4 MPH slower than their normal fastball. Pedro, Glavine, Hoffman, Santana, and CC have enough hand/wrist control/precision that they can throw a change that’s not just 3-4 MPH slower, but 9-12 MPH slower.

      That’s the huge difference. Everyone can throw a change, not everyone can throw a markedly slower change so that the pitch arrives SO MUCH later that the bat head is already through the zone.

      • Also, a lot of throwing a slow change comes from having a great fastball in the first place, and in particular the arm strength. The faster your good fastball is, the easier it is to throw a “bad” fastball that becomes your change and have a big gap between the two.

        If you have great arm strength, you can basically throw a “shotput” fastball that has much less backspin and thus less velocity from the same arm movement as your normal tightly-spinning fastball.

        Look at the picture. CC’s got the ball fully back in his palm. He’s basically throwing it with all arm and no fingers.

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals says:

          bah. all the be batters need to do is see how far back in his hand the ball actually is, and then wait another .1, .05 seconds to start their swing. there’s really nothing more to it than that…ask manny!

    • vin says:

      In my eyes, one thing that sets CC’s change apart from others is the movement he gets on the pitch. A lot of successful guys throw a straight changeup that doesn’t move a lot but is markedly slower than the FB.

      Not only does CC have good velocity differential, but he gets great fading action on the pitch. Just look at the Werth strikeout. Werth, who saw more pitches/pa than anyone in the game, has a keen eye… yet he still missed that pitch by quite a bit. He obviously thought that pitch was going to be too close to the corner to take, and he ended up swinging at a pitch that was way off the plate (and down).

    • pete says:

      a good changeup is BY FAR the hardest pitch in the standard repertoire (FB, Curve, Slider, Change) to control. Even a straight change requires throwing towards a different spot than a fastball in the same spot. It’s much easier to develop a nasty breaking ball to compliment a great fastball than a great changeup. Thus pitchers with stuff good enough to make it to MLB typically rely on the FB/Slider/Curve.

      Also, to throw a great changeup with either the standard circle change grip (using the middle and ring fingers instead of index and middle) or a palm grip requires a larger hand than most pitchers have. Without a larger hand the pitch is unlikely to be better than 4-5 mph slower with maybe 1-2 inches of tailing action. That’s practically BP for MLB hitters. Otherwise, a great changeup needs to be pushed further out in the hand – say a circle change that uses ring finger and pinky instead of index and middle. I remember using this grip in HS and i wasn’t able to throw it effectively until after 3 years of practice, and even then it was still pretty inconsistent. A dynamite pitch when it’s on, but soooo much goes into that. Much like a curveball, the ball needs to be thrown downhill to get any action, and the hand must also glide off the side of it. However, since the ball drops due to both spin and more time for gravity to affect it, it must be thrown at a high enough slot to appear to be a strike. It’s doable, but truly requires a relentless desire to perfect, and a fair amount of control.

    • d-ness says:

      I think the reason why more people don’t throw the change is that if you make a mistake, people blast it. It takes a lot of intelligence, as well as a guy (and CATCHER) who is very confident in his stuff to throw it at the right time in the count. That is what is so surprising when CC cock slaps these guys with a good change, same as Pedro did. He always threw it when you weren’t expecting it. Not only that… how humiliating to get struck out by a change… it just looks much more awkward.

  4. vin says:

    I thought Joba showed a pretty good changeup this season too. Of course CC used his pretty consistently all year, and Joba seemed to stray a bit towards the end of the year.

    Fangraphs disagrees though (-2.56). Perhaps that’s due to him not yet developing consistency with the pitch. I definitely recall seeing a lot of swings and misses with the pitch. Hopefully CC can impart some more knowledge on Joba.

    • Looks like Joba hasn’t really had an effective change in any year except his 2007 bullpen introduction, and he barely ever threw it back then. He’s been throwing the curve and the change more now that he’s starting (at the expense of his slider), but while the curve is getting better, the change is getting worse.

      Ah, the travails of a young starting pitcher still mastering his craft…

      • vin says:

        “Ah, the travails of a young starting pitcher still mastering his craft…”

        Yeah, we better pull the plug on that silly experiment and move him to teh 8th!!1

        My guess is that Joba was so “hit or miss” in his starts that he probably just didn’t have a good changeup (or any other pitches) on his bad start days, which skewed his numbers.

      • Bo says:

        Maybe just maybe his change just isnt that good.

    • pete says:

      Joba’s changeup was incredibly inconsistent this year. It’s very likely that he threw it more often than you realized, and you only remember the good ones, which made it seem like a more effective pitch. In that early May, 12 K start against boston, his changeup was superb, but more often than not, it was straight and about 85-86 MPH. There were a few times also that he threw some suspiciously 87-88mph fastballs during starts when he was fairly consistently 93-94 with the FB. Whether a 2 seamer or a changeup, it sucked.

      • vin says:

        I totally agree. See my above response to TSJC.

        It seems like he either had his good change, or he didn’t. But when he did, it was pretty lethal.

        Compared to CC, the difference, of course, is that CC’s change was so damn consistent all year.

        • pete says:

          true that. also, because camera angles tend to be on the right side of pitchers, a righty changeup appears to have more lateral movement than a lefty change does. So when CC’s looks like it’s moving 2 inches, it’s really moving about six, and when joba’s looks like it moves 8 inches, it’s really moving 4. The same/opposite goes for breaking balls. Joba’s slider looks on TV like it drops straight down, where CC’s appears to sweep way across the plate, when in reality they both move in a fairly evenly diagonal direction.

  5. larryf says:

    Add Lincecum to the “dominant pitchers with great changeups” list….

    Only Sabathia and Aceves have excellent changeups on our staff. 2 years ago, Mussina had one as well. None of these guys developed these in our organization. Be a nice feather in Eiland’s cap if he could get one of our homegrown guys to throw it like all these names we have been discussing…

    • whozat says:

      By the time a Guy reaches eiland, it’s kinda past time fir new pitches. That’d be an organizational thing to startat lower levels. If someone shows up with an inconsistent change like joba, then eiland should be able to help perfect it.

      • pete says:

        agreed. For the most part, pitches are developed at the minor league level. Once a pitcher gets to the majors he works more on perfecting his ability to execute pitches to optimal locations than on developing new pitches.

    • pat says:

      Wilkins De La Rosa has a very good changeup.

  6. KayGee says:

    I think the improvement in CC’s change up over the years could be due to a change in grip…take a look at this


    Not exactly sure what year this is from but the grip looks like a circle change as opposed to the grip he uses now…I wonder when he switched grips and who was responsible for it

  7. JD says:

    I love CC. He did a great job leading the rotation. Have any of you ever stopped to think about what will happen when he can opt out of the contract? I mean do you think he will like Arod did or stick by the Yanks?

    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      King Felix would have been a free agent but scrap that one. If CC opts out I imagine he’ll work our a new deal with the Yanks or they could go for Cliff Lee assuming he doesn’t get extended.

    • pete says:

      I think it depends on how things shake out with the yanks. Chances are that while he could probably secure a 5-year deal at age 32 (which would beat the 4 years left on the his current one, for him), he’ll be unlikely to surpass his AAV, and probably has as good a chance to negotiate an extension with the yanks as anyone in the later years of his contract. My personal guess would be that if Joba and/or Hughes become frontline starters, then the necessity of a CC on the yanks will become less, especially if they sign a good starter next offseason, and he will stay because that’d be the safest route for him to go. I highly doubt he specifically wants to leave the yankees, or will in the future, both because of the winning and the newly rejuvenated clubhouse atmosphere, and the only way the yankees beat their old contract is if the need is particularly high. If not, my guess is CC’s smart enough to stick with what he’s got.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals says:

        the key here has a good deal to do with the development of our younger guys…if we’ve got three new Joba/Phils knocking on the door, we may be less likely to reup CC as hard as that seems to believe…how awesome would that be?

  8. Bo says:

    Well there is a reason he is the highest paid starter in the game.

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