Steve McCatty is not prone to change. He developed his own style for nine years as a major league pitcher, honed his philosophy as a pitching coach for more than a decade and knows what he wants from the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff.
“We’re going to throw fastballs,” McCatty said. “We’re going to throw a lot of fastballs.”
This season, there has been no dramatic shift in thinking, no organizational mandate, but there has been a noticeable difference in the way the Nationals’ rotation has attacked opposing hitters. Spurred by personnel turnover and led by ace Stephen Strasburg, who throws perhaps the best change-up in baseball, the Nationals’ rotation is throwing considerably more change-ups.
In 2013, just five rotations threw change-ups less frequently than the Nationals. In 2014, just seven have thrown the pitch more often. Nationals starters have used change-ups on 14.2 percent of their pitches, according to Pitch FX data tracked by FanGraphs.com, an increase from 8.5 percent last season.
“It’s been such a good pitch,” McCatty said. “We’ve used it a little more, yeah.”
Since Gio Gonzalez arrived in 2012, the Nationals have developed a reputation as a hard-throwing, fastball-heavy rotation. But as starters have come and gone and Gonzalez, Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have grown as pitchers and become more familiar to hitters, the rotation has come to rely more on change-ups.
Personnel matters. The Nationals’ rotation lost Dan Haren, who hasn’t thrown a change-up since 2007, and added Taylor Jordan, who threw a change-up once every four pitches before the Nationals shipped him to the minors in early May. A large portion of the Nationals’ increased change-up usage can be attributed to that switch.
But other factors have contributed, as well. Starting last fall, after discussions with McCatty, Strasburg began using his change-up more often. He continued the practice this season, throwing the pitch 20.8 percent of the time — 15th-most frequent among big league starters — compared with 16.1 percent last season.
“With Stephen,” McCatty said, “it’s a little more of a design.”
Strasburg has broadened how and when he can use his change-up. He has improved the ability to throw his change-up for a strike, not just a chase pitch in the dirt. If he senses a hitter will be aggressive early in the count, he can throw the change-up over the plate and throw off a hitter’s timing. His change-up used to be primarily a strikeout pitch; now, he can start an at-bat with it just as proficiently.
Strasburg’s change-up appears, to a hitter, like it will behave similarly to his fastball. And then it corkscrews down and right, inside to a right-handed hitter or away from a left-handed hitter. Batters tend to swing over it, even as it careens into the other batter’s box or nearly hits them in the foot.
By measuring both small events (whether a pitch takes an 0-1 count to 1-1 or 0-2) and large ones (a pitch that results in a third strike or a home run), FanGraphs.com calculates the average value of each type of pitch from each pitcher across the majors. By those standards, Strasburg has saved 6.9 runs above average with his change-up, making it the most valuable change-up in the majors so far this season. The only off-speed pitches that have saved more runs are Sonny Gray’s curveball (8.1) and Yu Darvish’s slider (7.0).
Strasburg has abandoned his slider, the pitch he worked on during spring training, in part because his change-up has been so good — every slider thrown is one fewer change-up.
“He’s throwing his offspeed pitches for strikes, which is definitely the reason why they’re laying off his fastball a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “It’s constantly mixing up. I think that could be the reason why.”
Gonzalez, too, has thrown more change-ups this season. He rarely threw the pitch in 2012, relying on his wicked curveball and an electric, low-90s fastball. Gonzalez experienced a breakthrough with his change-up against Pittsburgh last May, throwing it on more than a quarter of his pitches in that start.
Still, Gonzalez moved away from the pitch until last fall, when he began throwing more often. In spring training this season, backup catcher Jose Lobaton saw Gonzalez throw his change-up and wondered why he didn’t throw it more frequently. Once Wilson Ramos broke his hamate bone opening day, Lobaton became the Nationals’ starter. When he caught Gonzalez, he called for change-ups.
Gonzalez was happy to nod his head. Before Gonzalez landed on the disabled list last weekend because of shoulder inflammation, he entered the season looking to alter his approach against hitters who have become increasingly familiar. Gonzalez has thrown it on 13.4 percent of his pitches this season compared with 10.3 percent last year.
“They’ve been seeing Strasburg for four years,” Gonzalez said. “Jordan, five years. This is my third season now with the Nationals. It’s good to have a third pitch, maybe even a fourth pitch. The way hitters are swinging nowadays, you got to keep them off balance, someway, somehow, mix it up on them. If you start falling into certain patterns they start recognizing, it’s good to have that off-speed pitch.”
The addition of Lobaton — and Ramos’s subsequent injury — may have affected the Nationals’ change-up increase. Lobaton came from the Tampa Bay Rays, who emphasize change-ups throughout their organization. Last season, the Rays were the only team to throw 20 percent change-ups. This year, they’ve thrown change-ups at a higher rate than all but five teams.
Any impact from Lobaton, though, would have been subconscious. He said his time with the Rays did not have a major impact on how he calls games with the Nationals. The Nationals’ front office targeted Lobaton in a trade because their analytical and scouting data suggested Lobaton handled elite starting pitchers well. But they had no specific intent on getting him to coax more change-ups from their staff.
No single factor has led the Nationals’ rotation to throw more change-ups. Whatever the reason, the Nationals expect it to continue.
“We need to use it, especially for the situation,” Ramos said. “A lot of hitters don’t like change-ups. We need to use it a lot. If the pitch is a good pitch in that moment, we’re going to use it.”