Jon Lester has thrown more changeups over the last two years in order to diversify his pitch portfolio as he continues to age. But is he sequencing changeups optimally? Let’s look at the data and you can come up with your own interpretations.
Lester usually throws around 10 changeups per 100-pitch start and induces only one whiff. That contradicts the eye test because Lester’s changeup looks pretty dirty. Yeesh, just look at how it drops off the table…
Perhaps a sequencing change could yield more whiffs for Lester. In order to see if there is a particular pattern that could optimize his changeup, I looked to Cole Hamels, whose changeup whiff rate is one of the best ever.
Hamels sets up his elite change primarily with four-seamers, though he’ll also use cutters, two-seamers, and other changeups.
It makes sense that Hamels throws many fastballs before his changeup because the whole idea is that the offspeed looks like a fastball coming out of his hand. Look at the chart below that displays the horizontal movement of Hamels’ fastballs and changeups and note the similarities between his fastballs and changeup.
Hamels pitches not only look similar in terms of release point, but they also exhibit similar behavior in terms of movement. An opposing batter has such limited time to make a decision based on the ball’s velocity and trajectory, so the deceptive nature of Hamels’ sequencing further compresses that window.
Compared to Hamels, how does Lester set up his change? We see that about half of the pitches before he throws previously are four-seams, sinkers, and changeups. But a huge chunk of his previous pitches are cutters, which might not be the optimal set-up pitch.
Lester’s cutter — which he throws about one-third of the time before throwing a change — has significantly different horizontal movement from the change. Lester’s four-seam, on the other hand, has similar horizontal movement to his changeup.
I find it hard to believe that a pitch as nasty as Lester’s changeup is not generating more swinging strikes. A shift in sequencing that has Jon following more four-seams with changeups, just like what Hamels does, could help disguise his dirty changeup. Even a slight tweak to disguise a pitch takes away precious thousandths of seconds from a batter’s decision-making process and lead to more whiffs.