Red Sox's Path to World Series Title Goes Through Michael Wacha's Elite Changeup
There's one pitch that might be powerful enough to keep the Boston Red Sox from winning the World Series.
That pitch is Michael Wacha's changeup. 'Tis a thing of great power and beauty, and it will soon be on display in the World Series.
According to ESPN's Buster Olney, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny named Wacha his starter for Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday at Fenway Park. That's when the Red Sox will get their first look at the rookie right-hander's signature pitch, and it's obviously possible that they'll have to do battle with it again later in the series.
They better be ready for it. Wacha's changeup is no ordinary changeup, and it's a pitch that appears to present a troubling matchup for Boston's high-powered offense.
We can start by discussing that first part.
The Wacha Changeup Appreciation Hour
When the Cardinals first drafted Wacha out of Texas A&M last June, B/R's Mike Rosenbaum wrote that he had the best changeup in the 2012 draft class, one that that might eventually rate as high as 65 or 70 on the 20-80 scale.
Here we are a little over a year later, and that sounds about right. If anything, a 65 or 70 grade for Wacha's changeup might be conservative. As SI.com's Cliff Corcoran recently put it: "It seems the best strategy against Wacha’s changeup is to take the pitch and hope that it’s called a ball."
That's actually not an exaggeration, as swinging at Wacha's changeup hasn't tended to go well.
Per Brooks Baseball, Wacha's changeup boasts a whiff/swing rate of 40.20 percent between the regular season and the postseason. Not many right-handers are capable of wandering into that sort of territory with their changeups.
In fact, only eight did this year, according to Baseball Prospectus' PITCHf/x leaderboard. Their names: Joe Blanton, Anibal Sanchez, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Corey Kluber, Kris Medlen, Stephen Strasburg and Jarrod Parker.
Another thing about Wacha's changeup is that it's not a platoon pitch. Most right-handers use changeups as out pitches against left-handed batters, but Wacha's changeup is an equal opportunity out-getter.
Left-handed batters have hit just .234 against Wacha's changeup with zero extra-base hits. Right-handed batters have done even worse to the tune of an .098 average and only one extra-base hit.
Yes, you read that correctly. Wacha has pitched 85.2 innings between the regular season and postseason and thrown a total of 353 changeups. Only one of those has been hit for extra bases, and it was a mere double. That's next to 43 strikeouts and only seven walks.
It's not any one thing that makes Wacha's changeup so special. It's a combination of things. In fact, his changeup pretty well fits the model of an elite changeup that I drew up earlier this summer. It's masked well, has good velocity separation from his fastball, is located well and is a late-breaker.
The changeup is a pitch that's supposed to deceive batters, and the deception must start before the pitch even leaves the pitcher's hand. If a pitcher releases his changeup from a different arm slot than he releases his fastball, he runs the risk of having hitters pick up on that.
Wacha doesn't do that. To illustrate with images from TexasLeaguers.com, here's the release point of the changeups Wacha has thrown in the postseason overlayed against the release point of the four-seamers he's thrown:
The red in the background is the four-seamers Wacha has thrown in October. The green highlights the cluster of changeups he's thrown. This admittedly isn't quite an ideal overlay, as Wacha hasn't been releasing his changeups and his four-seamers from exactly the same spot.
However, that has more to do with how inconsistent Wacha's fastball release points have been. His changeup release points haven't been inconsistent, and he's been releasing them from an angle that's not decidedly different from the angle he's been releasing his fastballs. That'll do for deception.
As for velocity differential, Brooks Baseball has the average velocity of Wacha's fastball at 94.41 miles per hour and the average velocity of his changeup at 86.73 miles per hour. That's close to an eight-MPH difference. A 10-MPH difference is ideal, but eight is a big enough gap to get hitters off-balance.
As for location, go ahead and take a look at Wacha's zone profile over at Brooks Baseball. What you'll see is that he's hardly put any changeups out over the plate. Most of them have ended up below the zone and away from the middle of the plate.
Wacha's command is one thing that's made that possible. Another thing that's made it possible is the movement he gets on his changeup. Some changeups are straight, but Wacha's is a real diver.
One guy who can vouch is Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe. In the sixth inning of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Uribe struck out swinging on a particularly nasty changeup from Wacha. It looked a little something like this.
If you think that pitched looked nasty on video, wait 'til you see it illustrated in still images.
Here's where that changeup was just before it was about to cross the plate:
You can tell that the ball had already started to dive, and that Uribe had decided to swing at it. If he was gearing up to swing at a changeup with lesser movement, he would have had a shot.
But this is where that changeup was a fraction of a second later:
The changeup Wacha threw Uribe completely disappeared. If we smush together the two images we just looked at, the movement was basically this:
No wonder Uribe couldn't hit that pitch. In the blink of an eye, it both fell off the table and basically traversed the width of the plate. Wacha's changeup is liable to do that when he throws it, and it's a big reason why hitters have been so baffled by it ever since he arrived in the show.
Such is the weapon that the Red Sox are going to be up against in the World Series, but now comes the time for the big question. Why should the Red Sox, the very team that led MLB in scoring in the regular season, be particularly worried about Wacha's changeup?
It's simple: Hitting changeups isn't exactly their specialty.
Red Sox and Changeups Don't Mix
Some teams are better than others at hitting certain pitches.
One way we know this is thanks to the pitch values kept over at FanGraphs. The simplest one keeps track of how many runs above average individual players and whole teams generate against individual pitches, and that's where we're turning our eyes now.
The Red Sox could certainly handle fastballs in 2013. They generated more fastball runs above average than any other team, and by a significant margin to boot.
But when it came to changeups, the Red Sox were really just OK. They generated just 4.5 changeup runs above average, good for 12th in the league.
The catch is that Mike Carp, Daniel Nava and Quintin Berry were three of Boston's most productive hitters against changeups. Unless John Farrell decides to start playing Nava in left field over Jonny Gomes against right-handed pitchers again, all three of them will be spending most of their time on the bench in the World Series.
That's going to mean a shortage of good changeup hitters in Farrell's starting nine when Wacha is on the mound. And if we narrow things down to changeups from right-handed pitchers using data from Brooks Baseball, the picture for the Red Sox doesn't change for the better.
Here's how their projected starting lineup has fared against right-handed changeups this year (regular season and postseason combined):
*These numbers encompass only Victorino's days as an exclusive right-handed hitter, which Sports on Earth says began after August 4.
Jacoby Ellsbury has done well against righty changeups, hitting for both a solid average and good power. David Ortiz has demolished righty changeups, hitting for an excellent average and excellent power.
But everyone else? There's not much there but a whole lot of "meh."
Shane Victorino has hardly been exposed to righty changeups since he started batting exclusively right-handed, and has done little against the ones he's seen. Dustin Pedroia hasn't hit righty changeups for power, which makes that mediocre average out to be a hollow one. Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have been strikeout magnets against righty changeups. Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew and Xander Bogaerts basically haven't done anything against them.
Knowing this, it's not a shocker that the Red Sox didn't have an answer for the changeups featured by the Detroit Tigers' big three in the American League Championship Series.
Verlander didn't throw his changeup that much in Game 3, choosing instead to use his slider and curveball as his go-to secondaries. But Sanchez and Scherzer went to their changeups a lot, and enjoyed a bit of success doing so. They both got more strikeouts on their changeups than they allowed hits.
In all, five hits in 29 at-bats ending in changeups isn't good. That's a .172 average, and it's attached to a mere .104 ISO.
Since changeups gave the Red Sox trouble in the regular season and continued to confound them in the ALCS against Detroit's big three, Wacha has an open invitation to go to his as often as he can in the World Series.
And don't be surprised if Wacha and Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist come up with a game plan to do just that. After all, this Cardinals team has already provided one example that shows it knows its scouting reports.
Take Adam Wainwright against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was going up against a team that ranked third from the bottom in curveball runs above average in the regular season, so it's not the least bit surprising that Wainwright upped the usage of his curveball in the two starts he made against them in the National League Division Series.
Per Brooks Baseball, curveballs accounted for just over 27 percent of Wainwright's pitches in the regular season. Against the Pirates in the NLDS, nearly 40 percent of Wainwright's pitches were curveballs.
And it worked. Waino allowed only three hits and struck out 12 with his curveball. All three of the hits were singles.
Will the Red Sox be the team that solves Michael Wacha?
If exploiting a weakness against a particular pitch could work for Wainwright against the Pirates, then it could work for Wacha against the Red Sox. And alas, exactly how the Red Sox should respond if Wacha goes to a changeup-heavy approach against them is an "easier said than done" scenario.
One goes back to Corcoran's quip about just taking it and hoping it's a ball. We know from Wacha's tendency to leave his changeup below the strike zone that that's not the worst idea in the world—for anyone who's curious, Wacha hasn't deviated from this habit in October.
The act of taking Wacha's changeup for a ball, however, requires recognizing it. Because Wacha's changeup is well-masked and a late-mover, recognizing it is hardly easy. And indeed, that the Red Sox have struggled as a team to hit right-handed changeups this season is a clear indication that they're not loaded with guys who are good at recognizing changeups.
Only Ellsbury and Ortiz seem to have a knack for it. Against them, Wacha will have to tread carefully. The rest of the lineup, however, may have to just hope to do damage against any hangers that might come across the plate.
For you Red Sox fans out there, there may not seem to be much hope in that last statement. But hey, remember this: the Red Sox just won a pennant on a hanging pitch. Perhaps the baseball gods shall will it to happen again.
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