August 8, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero (24) reacts in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Trouble with the Change?

Early this afternoon, Dan Brooks of BrooksBaseball.net and BaseballProspectus.com released his latest tool for pitcher analysis using the PitchFX system. The tool allows you to create a sortable table based upon a number of factors, namely year, pitch type, and pitch characteristics. I was interested in using the information to look at Ricky Romero after reading an article on Drunk Jays Fans by Andrew Stoeten last Thursday in which, with analysis from Jon Hale of The Mockingbird, he wondered whether Romero’s changeup had become too good. By that, he meant the break had advanced to the point where he couldn’t keep it in the strike zone, and hitters were refusing to offer at the pitch.

When comparing 2012 Ricky Romero to the 2011 edition, his point becomes glaringly clear. In 2011, Romero had the 3rd highest whiff rate on changeups (minimum 200 thrown) in all of baseball, behind only Cole Hamels and Edison Volquez. Hitters missed on 44.74% of their swings against changeups thrown by Toronto’s ace, and even when they did make contact, it was weak. His 4.80 GB/FB ratio with the pitch was 4th in all of baseball, behind A.J. Burnett, Carlos Carrasco, and Zach Britton. In terms of velocity, the changeup was thrown at a very crisp average of 85.75 mph.

The 2012 seasons tells a different story, and as we’ve seen for five-plus months, this story has a far worse ending. Romero’s whiff rate on the changeup has plummeted to 33.67%; an 11% drop. After ranking 3rd last season, his whiff rate ranks just 31st in baseball this year, with the same 200 pitch minimum. Both the GB/FB ratio and average velocity are down significantly as well, sitting at 2.64 and 83.55 mph respectively.

In terms of vertical movement, the break on the changeup has increased over two inches since the 2009 season. As Jon Hale writes in his analysis, the depth of Romero’s changeup this season is six inches greater than the average left handed pitcher. While that may sound like a good thing, it needs to be remembered that the main purpose of a changeup is to look like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand. Then, instead of cutting the plate where the hitter is expecting, the pitch tumbles and dies, forcing a swing that is both early and above the ball. The movement on Romero’s changeup has become so extreme it no longer looks like his fastball. Hitters are able to pick it up early, and simply let it go by for a low ball. Not only has this resulted in a spiked walk rate, but his fastball is now living on an island. Instead of the changeup complementing his fastball and making it jump up on hitters unexpectedly as they have off-speed in the back of their mind, they’re able to sit on the pitch knowing Romero needs to throw it over the plate for a strike. The end result – a high walk rate, a high batting average against, and low confidence in our former ace.

As simple as it sounds, the best remedy for Romero may be to throw a firmer changeup. In 2009 through 2011 – his first three seasons – Romero’s changeup averaged 84.36, 84.52, and 85.75 mph respectively. Returning to that level of velocity is a surefire way to flatten out the changeup enough to make it once again enticing to swing at. It’s his best pitch, and Romero goes as the changeup goes. If he hopes to avoid a repeat of this season and get back to confounding the opposition, his changeup – not his mechanics or command – needs to be the focus of his offseason.

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