It’s right there, in the definition of a changeup, on the league website. “The changeup is a common off-speed pitch, and almost every starting pitcher owns a changeup as part of his arsenal,” it says on MLB.com. The changeup — or at least a third pitch of some sort — is almost considered a fundamental requirement for starting.
And then there’s Spencer Strider, who broke the rookie strikeout rate record last year in 131.2 excellent innings, and did so without a changeup. Literally 95 percent of the time, he threw a fastball and slider, and only two starters threw 100+ innings and threw their primary two pitches more often. Headed into this season, the obvious question is if he can continue this dominance with two pitches.
“I don’t want to throw a pitch that doesn’t have the prospect of getting an out,” Strider told me late last year. “Worse pitches are contacted more, put into play more, you have worse command of them like I do with my changeup, and so you’re falling behind and relying on pitches that are going to be fouled off rather than swung-and-missed in a two-strike count. So what’s the point of it then?”
The numbers say throwing a third pitch even just 10 percent of the time softens a pitcher’s third-time-through-the-order penalty. In other words, players get more accustomed to the shapes and velocities a pitcher throws, and being able to mix it up means a starter can go deeper into the games. That makes sense in theory, but Strider himself still struck out 38 percent of the batters he saw in the fifth inning and later, and they only managed a .180/.251/.281 line against him, which doesn’t suggest they were seeing him any better.
Maybe that’s just one year of noise, but there is a sense that Strider’s two pitches were engineered to fit together.
“Our whole approach with pitching is to identify what you’re good at,” Strider pointed out. “For me it was the fastball. Low (Vertical Approach Angle), high vert, good velo, that’s going to be the centerpiece of the arsenal, everything is going to build off that.”
That fastball is indeed excellent, as it has a low VAA (-4.3 degrees, in the top 20 percent), a high vertical movement (17.6 Induced Vertical Break, also in the top 20 percent), and both of those things are augmented by his lower release point, which was also something he manufactured on purpose.