Changeups are the Yankees’ New Toy

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When the Yankees hired Matt Blake as their new pitching coach in November 2019, it was clear that changes were coming. Much-maligned Larry Rothschild did a much better job with the Yankee staff than he was ever given credit, but there wasn’t much doubt that it was time for a change. Matt Blake fit better into the Sam Briend mold, after all, and he is the right sort of mind for the new pitching infrastructure the Yankees implemented.

Still, this is his first full season as Yankee pitching coach, amazingly enough. Compounding matters is the fact that his Spring Training last year was interrupted by a global pandemic. Sort of hard to make your mark in that context, isn’t it? The point is that we can now, with a normal offseason/spring and full season ahead, start to see how Blake and co. are changing things around the Bronx.

There is already a clear trend in place, which we’ve written about several times in game takeaways already: the Yankees are throwing a lot more changeups with Blake at the helm. I’m convinced this is an intentional decision and it marks a pretty dramatic shift in their philosophy. Let’s get into it.

When Blake took over, he inherited a team that barely used fastballs (just 54%) and was known for an anti-fastball philosophy. Accordingly, they also barely used changeups. Across Rothschild’s final five seasons in New York, his pitchers ranked 27th in changeup usage, featuring the pitch just 8.5% of the time. League average was 10% over the same period.

This is no longer the case. While the Yankees use fastballs a bit more (56%), they feature changeups significantly more. Under Blake, Yankee pitchers throw a change 13.1% of the time – good for 8th highest in baseball since Opening Day 2020. They’re also using them in higher-leverage counts, too. With Rothschild, the Yankees used a change just 2.5% of the time in two-strike counts; with Blake, usage spiked to 4.2% since last year.

This is a team-wide trend, too: if you have a changeup, the Yankees want you to use it more. I created this chart to show some of the individual increases, which are representative of the team overall:

 Pitcher2020-212018-19Career Average
Gerrit Cole8.8%6.0%6.6%
Corey Kluber10.7%6.7%6.4%
Jordan Montgomery25.1%21.5%20.9%
Jonathan Loaisiga19.2%12.9%15.2%
Domingo Germán23.7%17.9%18.6%
League 11.7%10.6%10.2%

That’s an across-the-board increase right there. It’s not just limited to young, moldable guys, either. I think it’s notable that two long-time staff aces in Gerrit Cole and Corey Kluber has seen such a marked increase. It’s a sign that this is a new organizational philosophy. Then again, we just saw Kluber’s new toy in action. Is it any wonder that he’s throwing it more when it looks like this?

Yeah. That’s what I thought. Anyway, there’s likely a very good reason for the increased staff usage: the pitch is much more effective now. Check out the batting lines against the pitch over the two periods:

  • Blake Era: .211./.254/.345 (.262 wOBA)
  • Rothschild Era: .239/.286/.371 (.284 wOBA)
  • League Average (Pitch Tracking Era): .242/.286/.391 (.295 wOBA)

That’s a big improvement. Under Rothschild, the Yankee changeups were more or less league average. They’re much better than that under Blake, though it’s worth noting that the line has decreased some in the new age of the pitcher (.284 wOBA against overall in 2020-21). Even accounting for that, though, it’s clear that the Yankees are not just using more changeups, but using them more effectively.

This made me wonder if Blake had done something to improve the pitch’s spin rate or some other underlying factor. The answer is…maybe? Check out this chart, which maps each pitcher’s spin rate on the change over the same periods tracked above:

 2020-212018-19Statcast Era Average
Gerrit Cole175217951721
Corey Kluber166717621723
Jordan Montgomery175318011835
Jonathan Loaisiga183717101769
Domingo Germán225324062394
Yankee Pitchers182018001776
League 177617901765

Remember, lower spin rate is better for a changeup. And there is definitely a difference on some of those guys. Kluber’s, for example, looks much, much improved. Montgomery’s also features lower spin, as does Germán’s. (Germán’s changeup has always interested me, as it has a super high spin rate but also seems key to his overall effectiveness.)

But it’s not really enough to say that there was a huge improvement here or anything. Yankee pitchers overall have not really improved their spin rates, but that’s whatever. It’s just one marker of effectiveness, anyway – spin rates are not everything, even if they’re en vogue right now. The point here is simple, really: the Yankees are using a lot more changeups under Matt Blake, and they’re using them more effectively.

This is something to keep an eye on throughout the rest of the season. I don’t think this is noise or an aberration – even a quick scan of Baseball America’s Yankee prospect pages reveals that the staff is working with young arms on the offering. This seems to be the first very noticeable change of the Matt Blake era. We’ll have to see if it sticks. For now, let’s just enjoy the changeups that look like this and hope these are here to stay.

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2 Comments

  1. Thomas Krum

    Wish Matt the best.. Just hope that he’s not relying totally on the analytics

  2. Great writeup-whatever Blake’s been doing seems to be working!

    Also, I’ve been refreshing this page all day at work looking for that Astros preview!!! Wish we were at 100% capacity for this series!

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