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The rise of the 90mph changeup

How Félix Hernández unwittingly started a revolution.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last decade the marked increase in fastball velocity has been well-documented and thoroughly discussed. It’s no secret that pitchers are trying to throw as hard as they absolutely can every single pitch they throw. Pitch velocity, and specifically fastball velocity, has quickly become the most scouted aspect of pitching. As such, the guys with the highest fastball velocity are almost always the most valuable assets in a major league organization’s eyes and their fans.

While fans are clamoring for their favorite organization to land the pitcher that throws their fastball the hardest, something else is slipping completely under the radar. It doesn’t seem to be mentioned all that often, if at all, when talking about a huge increase in fastball velocity, and that is the parallel rise in changeup velocity. It’s not just an increase for a select few pitchers either; we’re talking an increase in changeup velocity league-wide that dwarfs what we thought was a substantial rise in fastball velocity.

For a pitch whose entire preface is a change in speed, hence the name, it’s quite shocking to see such large increases not just in the average velocity but in the upper reaches of how hard a changeup can be thrown.

Thanks to the advent of PITCHf/x back in 2007, we’ve been able to track with the utmost scrutiny the type, velocity, and movement of every pitch thrown during major league competition. This gives us as fans, as well as coaches and players, an unprecedented look at pitching data. As result, we can see any trends that have begun developing.

The 2008 season was the first full regular season in which the PITCHf/x system was fully functional, and during the decade from that first season up to this season, the average velocity of all four-seam fastballs has increased from 91.8mph in 2008 up to 93.6mph, which is the current average fastball velocity at the All-Star Break in 2017. This comes out to a 1.8 mile per hour increase over the last 10 years, or an average of almost two-tenths of a mile per hour each season.

Contrasted with that is the substantial increase in changeup velocity, which saw it jump from 82.2mph in 2008 all the way up to 84.6mph where it sat at the All-Star break this season. That’s a 2.4mph change over the past decade, or an average of more than two-tenths of a mile per hour each season. The charts below show the changes in fastball and changeup velocity year by year, as well as a fastball minus changeup velocity differential and how much the changeup velocity has increased year to year.

Fangraphs & Pitch Info

Not only has the average velocity of the changeup gone up quickly, the last few seasons the number of changeups thrown at or above 90mph has increased drastically as well. According to Baseball Savant’s Statcast search, thanks to a combination of PITCHf/x data, between 2008 and 2013 there were 104 different pitchers who threw at least five changeups that were clocked at 90mph or higher. And since 2014, there have been 139 different pitchers who’ve thrown at least five changeups at or above 90mph. There have been 50 different pitchers who’ve already done that by the All-Star break this season alone.

As the chart below shows, starting in 2015, we saw an unbelievable leap in the number of pitchers who touched 90mph with their changeup at least 5 times in a season. This trend really started picking up speed at that point, even though it had begun before that.

Baseball Savant

Félix Hernández is the prime example when it comes to a hard-thrown changeup. He’s really the first guy during the PITCHf/x era to have a changeup that consistently averaged around the 88- to 89-mile-per-hour mark year after year, so you could call him the 90mph changeup model, as he’s been doing this for well over a decade and really was the first to do so. He isn’t just known for throwing a really hard changeup, however; it’s also been one of the most dominant changeups, and really one of the best pitches as a whole in professional baseball.

Another aspect that really separates Hernández is the lack of velocity differential between his fastball and changeup. Over the last six years the difference between his average fastball velocity and his average changeup velocity has been less than five miles per hour each season. No one else has done this or come even close since the PITCHf/x era began.

Félix was third in the majors in changeup velocity in 2007, second in 2008 and then from 2009 up through the 2014 season he lead the league in changeup velocity every single year. In 2015 regression and age caught up to Hernández as he finished 8th in changeup velocity after he saw it drop a full mile per hour that year. Coincidentally that was the same year in which the number of hard thrown changeups really skyrocketed, as the chart a few paragraphs above shows. While he started to decline, the league has surged forward.

Still, over the last decade among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 changeups, only Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg have a higher average changeup velocity than Félix Hernández’s 89.2mph average, with 89.7mph and 89.3mph respectively.

As I said earlier, Hernández’s changeup is one of the best in baseball. During the six seasons in which he lead the league in changeup velocity between 2009 and 2014, only once did his changeup finish outside the top five in total pitch value. Over the past decade only seven pitchers who’ve thrown at least 600 changeups have a higher pitch value per 100 pitches on their changeup than Félix Hernández. However, Hernandez beats all 12 except Cole Hamels in total pitch value on the changeup.

Since 2008 Felix has thrown 6,400 changeups and recorded 684 strikeouts in 1,829 at bats, which is good for a 38.4 percent strikeout rate. He’s also only walked 83 batters with the changeup during that same time which puts his strikeout to walk ratio with the changeup just slightly under eight and his walk rate is at 4.5 percent. Another mind-blowing fact is that over 10 percent of all of the changeups Hernandez has thrown resulted in a strikeout, and that’s not even figuring in the fact that in many at-bats Felix used the changeup more than once.

Among pitchers who’ve used their changeup in at least 350 different at-bats only Stephen Strasburg and Francisco Rodriguez have a lower slugging percentage off that pitch than Hernandez’s .249 slugging percentage, with .207 and .240 respectively. And just three pitchers have a lower isolated power against the changeup than Hernández does.

Félix Hernández has undoubtedly been a model for how successful you can be while throwing a changeup that is very close to the velocity of your fastball. He’s been doing it for the last decade and doing it better than anyone else. Although age and health has caused him to regress a little bit more than we thought these last couple of seasons, Félix continues to find a majority of his success with his changeup and continues to be among the best in the league with that pitch.

With Hernández’s success we’ve seen the beginning of a revolution that only shows signs of speeding up, and as we continue to see an increase in fastball velocity league-wide, the changeup velocity will also probably continue to increase across the league. I would even wager that you’ll continue to see a larger increase in changeup velocity than fastball velocity, as more and more pitchers find success with a harder thrown changeup. The changeup velocity will continue to inch closer and closer to what was once territory that only a fastball would touch.

Despite all the numbers, I have say, there’s something truly awe inspiring watching a guy turn-over a changeup that clocks well over 90mph, almost like he’s trying to blow that pitch by you too. It’s a brave new world we’re living in.

Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.