Clay Buchholz And The New-Old Changeup

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Predicting how Clay Buchholz will pitch in a given year has always been a difficult task. This year Buchholz is featuring a “new-old” changeup. Ian York takes a look at the pitch and how it compares to the changeup he had been throwing, and the two-seam fastball it shares a grip with.

One of Clay Buchholz’s most effective pitches, when it is working, is his changeup. Unfortunately for Clay (and Red Sox fans), he has a habit of literally forgetting how to throw the pitch. Fortunately for both, so far 2015 seems to be a year when he has remembered how. 

Compared to last year, Clay Buchholz has been throwing his changeup more often (15% in 2015 vs. 11.4% in 2014 as of the publishing of this article), and with much better results (pitch value – wCH/C – of 0.48 in 2014, up to an impressive 3.69 in 2015). In an article by Brian MacPherson, Clay explained that he has reverted back to a changeup grip that he had used in high school, college and the low minors, but that he had not used for nearly a decade. He felt that this grip gives his changeup more horizontal movement, while his old grip led to a changeup with mostly vertical movement.

PITCHf/x data from 2015 and 2014 supports this. Clay’s changeups in 2014 and 2015 have similar speeds (averaging about 79-mph in 2015 vs 81.2 in 2014), but this year’s version has much more horizontal movement. Here are animations summarizing every change he threw in 2014 vs. 2015; there is definitely an increase in horizontal movement for his 2015 pitches:

(As always, these animations are from the viewpoint of the umpire.) 

This is even more easily seen when comparing two individual pitches from each year. These pitches were chosen to be as close to the “average” pitch for that year as possible. For 2014, the animation shows a changeup Buchholz threw to Matthew Joyce of the Rays, in the first inning of a game on Aug. 31 2014, for an out. For 2015, the animation shows one thrown to Chris Davis in the fifth inning against Baltimore, Apr 18 2015, for a swinging strike:

In these charts, we are looking at the pitch from three views: From the top, the side, and the front (the umpire’s view). The dots mark the balls’ positions every 1/10 of a second. The solid lines show how the ball would travel in the absence of air; divergence from these lines is the amount of break a pitch has. Although these pitches have similar amounts of vertical break, their horizontal movement is very different. The 2014 pitch has very little horizontal break, staying close to its no-air trajectory, while the 2015 pitch moves away from that quite a bit. It may or may not be a factor that his release point for all his pitches has moved about 2 inches further out (to Clay’s right). However, the horizontal break is too large to be attributed solely to release point. See Michael Richmond’s article on arm angles for a more in depth discussion.

Clay’s former changeup was a four-seam grip, while his new-old changeup comes from a two-seam grip, so it should move like a two-seam fastball but slower. Here is a comparison of the same change shown above, with a two-seam fastball (abbreviated “FT”) that is very close to his average 2015 two-seamer. This was a pitch Buchholz threw to Everth Cabrera in the second inning of his game against Baltimore on Apr. 18, 2015, for a called strike:

The two pitches really are remarkably similar, with the one huge difference that one comes in at over 90-mph, and the other at less than 80, so that the the changeup takes nearly a tenth of a second (0.07 seconds) longer to reach the plate.

It is still very early in the season, so perhaps batters will adjust to the new change, or perhaps Clay will forget how to throw it, or perhaps Fenway Park will be overrun by radioactive locusts and the whole season will be cancelled. Certainly, though, it is an encouraging sign to see such an increase in effectiveness in one of Buchholz’s staple pitches.

Ian York visualizes baseball in a new, beautiful way, examining umpire strike zones, the repertoire of pitchers and the value of catcher framing.

Follow Ian on twitter @iayork. Follow us on twitter at @SoSHBaseball.

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