Transcendent pitches only come along every so often. The last twenty to thirty years birthed an adoration for John Smoltz’s legendary fastball. Notorious one-pitch pitcher Mariano Rivera relied solely on his cutter. Pedro Martinez made fools out of even the best hitters with a devastating changeup. Johan Santana had a pretty slick changeup, as well. The 2019 Cleveland Indians have spent their season making every opponent with a halfway decent changeup look like Martinez and Santana.
Baseball is a game of ebbs and flows, especially when viewing a team’s offense as a whole. Of course there will be peaks and valleys, like the Indians have experienced throughout the season. After being hilariously inept in April and May, the Indians offense flipped the script to competence in June. One thing has remained a constant, however — they are collectively stifled by changeups.
Of all of the teams in baseball, only two other clubs have performed worse against the pitch. Zero clubs have seen it more often. This past weekend’s series against the Baltimore Orioles demonstrated that this is surely not a coincidence, as all three Orioles starters leaned on their changeup with regularity.
John Means, Andrew Cashner, and Gabriel Ynoa went to the fundamental change of pace all weekend. It should be noted that all three of them have seen usage spikes on the pitch this season, in general, so it could be attributed to an organizational initiative. The volume on display this past weekend went above and beyond a simple usage shift, though. Instead of just depending on it a bit more, the trio turned it into a staple.
Friday’s starter John Means was the least willing participant in the changeup attack. He threw it consistently — 25 times to be precise, which is slightly above his season average — but did not overwhelm Indians hitters with it. This could have been by design, though. Indians hitters have fared terribly against the pitch overall, but less so against southpaws like Means. They are roughly league average from a wOBA standpoint against lefty changeups.
That point illuminates just how putrid they are against changeups from right-handers. In that category, they are dead last with a 0.211 wOBA — a full 90 points behind the middle of the pack and 150 points behind the league-leading Texas Rangers.
Saturday’s starter Andrew Cashner chose to capitalize on the Indians ineffectiveness versus the pitch. He threw it 40 times in only 98 pitches. Though he has upped his season usage this year (from 13% to 25%), that 40 times was far and away the most heavily he has depended upon it. The next highest game total for him was 33.
The changeup movement extended to Gabriel Ynoa on Sunday, when he threw 28 of them. His previous season high was 21, so the 28 put an exclamation point on the weekend of changeups.
The Indians scored two runs over the weekend against the worst pitching staff in baseball. Means, Cashner, and Ynoa combined to throw 93 changeups. A clearly mapped out plan that was executed with efficiency. Over 17 1/3 innings, the trio allowed a single run. On 27 batted changeups, only four resulted in hits. The plan of attack worked to a tee, costing the Indians two crucial losses while chasing an eight game deficit in the American League Central.
It’s hardly the first time the Indians have been stymied by changeups this season. They’ve faced White Sox breakout starter Lucas Giolito twice and lost twice in the first half of 2019. This alone is not worrisome, as Giolito’s success has been one of the most interesting storylines across the league. The method in which Giolito dominated them is more revealing.
Giolito has only thrown more than 30 changeups twice in his 16 outings. On May 7th he threw 34 and on June 2nd he opted for it 36 times. If you guessed that each of these outings was against the hapless Indians offense, you would be correct. He went 7 1/3 innings in both victories while allowing only eight total hits and striking out 17, resulting in a seismic deconstruction of the Indians offense.
If the numbers aren’t enough to convince you, Giolito and catcher James McCann spoke to reporters about their plan of attack after the first outing on May 7th:
‘‘They weren’t adjusting to it, so we just stuck with that,’’ Giolito said. ‘‘I was like: ‘Why mess around? Let’s go after them with heaters and changeups off of that.’ And it worked out well.’’
The White Sox duo proceeded to go back to that well less than a month later and double down on the attack, even after broadcasting it for the world to hear. The brazen “go ahead and hit it even if you know what’s coming” approach.
Despite this approach and post-start commentary, Giolito might not even be the most compelling argument for the Indians lack of adjustments against the pitch. Another divisional opponent, Jose Berrios, has taken the mound against the Indians twice.
His first outing against the Indians was on March 28th, or Opening Day. In this outing he threw 12 changeups, which is right in the middle when plotting all of his starts. It’s also in line with his season usage percentage. The caveat is that this was Opening Day, so the Indians woes against changeups were not well known or documented.
The interest mounts when viewing his second start of 2019 against the Indians. On June 6th, he took the mound with the Twins attempting to stave off a sweep. Berrios took a cue from Giolito and just attacked the Indians offense with the changeup. He went on to throw it 27 times, more than any other start of his 2019. He allowed three balls to be put in play off of it with none of them being hit exceptionally hard. It also induced four swinging strikes and seven called strikes, with the change playing a large role in quieting the Indians offense and successfully avoiding the sweep.
Berrios’ usage transformation between outings is alarming. He leveraged the available information to produce a desired outcome. As did Lucas Giolito, John Means, Andrew Cashner, and Gabriel Ynoa. All of these pitchers, among a few others, adjusted their pitch mix to cater to their opponent’s weakness.
It is especially troubling for an offense that has already endured concerns about preparation from within, as Mike Clevinger spoke up about the lack of preparation for last year’s ALDS matchup with the Houston Astros.
We were a little bit… uh… kinda had our backs against the wall before this started when it came to the analytical side.
Mike Clevinger on Indians preparation for 2018 ALDS
An additional quote transcribed by The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd echoed Clevinger’s sentiments.
And one Indians player, speaking privately, told me he believes the Astros’ hitters were far better prepared for this series than Indians hitters. He believed the scouting reports were more intricate and the attention to detail was more precise.
Jason Lloyd on Indians hitting approach during 2018 ALDS
The book is out on the Cleveland Indians. That will not change unless they make the adjustments referred to by Giolito and show some degree of adequacy against the pitch. The Indians will need to flip the script and adequately prepare their hitters for changeups in the second half of 2019 if they have dreams of playing in October. In this day and age of using any perceived weaknesses you can find to gain an edge, their opponents will change up their usage to maximize the number of changeups. Your move, Indians.