After the departure of Pablo Lopez, the Marlins starting rotation has been left with a hole temporarily filled by Johnny Cueto on a one-year deal. Even without Lopez, the Marlins rotation still featured a carousel of young arms, such as reigning Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara, along with Edward Cabrera, Jesus Luzardo, Sixto Sanchez, and Trevor Rogers. Young right-hander Eury Perez also stands next in line.
All of these pitchers have different styles on the mound, but they all share one key trait – they all thrive off of their changeups.
Marlins starters threw 3,661 changeups in 2022. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. The Arizona Diamondbacks threw the second most in the majors with 2,510. 3,661 also marks the most changeups any team has thrown in any season since MLB’s pitch-tracking era began in 2008. The Marlins throw changeups like we’ve never seen, and it works for them.
Opponents in 2022 hit .200 against changeups thrown by Marlins starters. They also slugged .314 and posted a wOBA of .257. Each of those metrics ranked third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, among MLB rotations. According to Fangraphs, Miami logged a weighted changeup value (wCH) of 37.7. That is the highest any team has had in a season since 2014.
Each pitcher has an efficient changeup that allows them to contribute to this collective success.
The unanimous Cy Young winner changed his repertoire in 2022 and made his changeup his primary pitch. Alcantara’s changeup was his third pitch as recently as 2021, and the switches made to his pitch mix paid major dividends.
In 2022, no changeup in major league baseball produced a run value lower than -14, Except for Alcantara, who landed at -25. That means Alcantara saved approximately 25 runs based on the production of his changeup, 11 more than anyone else.
Opponents hit .145 against Alcantara’s changeup in 2022 and slugged .194. They logged only 11 extra-base hits, zero of them being home runs across 265 plate appearances. A large reason Alcantara kept batters from driving the ball was because of his ability to keep the ball on the ground.
In 2022, the 175 batted balls Sandy Alcantara gave up against his changeup resulted in 121 ground balls. That gave him the highest groundball rate (69.1%) among all pitchers in 2022 to have at least 100 batted balls against their changeup. Alcantara also held the lowest average launch angle against a changeup on that same list. (-5°) This proved Alcantara’s specific ability to get opponents to punch his changeups straight into the ground.
Statcast defines a ground ball as any batted ball with a launch angle below 10°. Alcantara instead lived well below the 0° marker as effectively as anyone in recorded history. Since the Statcast era began in 2015, no pitcher, of the 205 with 100 batted balls against their changeup in a season, had a higher rate of batted balls with a launch angle at or below -10° as Sandy Alcantara did in 2022. 45.7% of the total batted balls against Alcantara’s changeup fell below this threshold, and opponents hit .114 on these balls.
In addition to his outstanding ground ball rate, Alcantara brings the heat, even with his off-speed. Alcantara’s changeup averaged out at 91.8 MPH last season, the second-highest of the 239 pitchers to throw at least 100 changeups in 2022.
Alcantara has all but held a monopoly on high-velocity changeups throughout his career. Since Alcantara debuted in 2017, the league average velocity on a changeup has been 84.6 mph. The slowest changeup Alcantara has ever thrown in six big league seasons? 85.5 mph, nearly a mile per hour above the average. Additionally, since 2017, Alcantara has thrown a total of 1,717 changeups of at least 90 mph. No one else in the big leagues has thrown more than 782 such pitches in that time.
In fact, Alcantara’s 2022 season alone would give him the most such pitches since 2017. He logged 857 90+ mph changeups last year – topping out at 95.8 mph. He also threw 689 of such pitches in 2021, the second most that have been thrown in a season.
Alcantara’s high velocity, ground ball-inducing changeup was the driving force behind his impressive 228.2 inning season in 2022.
Remember how Alcantara had the second-highest changeup velocity last year among all pitchers with at least 100 changeups thrown? The only man above him was his own teammate, Edward Cabrera.
Throughout parts of 2022, Cabrera was consistently throwing changeups, the likes of which have never been seen before.
This saga began on June 1, 2022, as Cabrera and the Marlins were in Colorado to take on the Rockies in the first end of a day-night doubleheader. The Marlins went on to win this game 14-1 on the back of 21 hits, their most in a game since 2018. But the real showing of power was on the mound.
62 of Cabrera’s 94 pitches clocked in at 93 mph or higher. The catch was that 28 of those 62 were changeups. Before that day, no one had ever thrown more than 14 changeups of at least 93 mph in a single game. Cabrera came in and doubled it. He topped out at 95.5 mph on a whiff to Brendan Rodgers. His next time out on June 7 against the Nationals, he threw another 21. Then on June 12 against the Astros, another 22.
These three performances remain the most 93-mph changeups in a single game by a single player. Cabrera had become a must-watch; but then, a setback.
Cabrera went on the IL after the Astros start with right elbow tendonitis. He missed nearly two months. Although he wasn’t his June self, he came back strong. On his Aug. 5 returning start vs the Cubs, Cabrera threw 16 changeups that hit 93 or higher. At the time, it was the fourth-most in a game behind his previous three. He threw yet another 12 in his next start against the Phillies.
From Aug. 5 on, Cabrera still led in average changeup velocity among the 281 pitchers to throw at least 25 changeups.
But Cabrera’s isn’t just known for its uniquely high velocity, it also excels at inducing weak contact.
Among the 102 pitchers that allowed at least 50 batted balls on changeups in 2022, Cabrera was tied for second in average exit velocity against (81.6 mph). Cabrera found himself tied with Lance Lynn and only trailing Max Fried. Statcast defines a soft-hit ball as any batted ball with an exit velocity at or below 80 mph. On that same list of 102 pitchers, Cabrera’s 43.5% soft hit rate ranks seventh lowest. Opponents are hitting a microscopic .100 on said batted balls.
This combination of high heat and soft contact has allowed Cabrera to find a lot of success in his changeup. Among the 61 pitchers that had at least 100 plate appearances end on a changeup, Cabrera ranks third in Run Value/100 pitches (-2.6), trailing only Mark Leiter Jr and Alcantara. This means for every 100 changeups Cabrera throws, he saves an estimated 2.6 runs.
Throughout 2022, opponents hit .172 against Cabrera’s changeup and slugged .269. For a starter that uses his changeup over 30% of the time, the confidence Cabrera has in it is clearly justified.
In his first full year as a Marlin, Jesus Luzardo looked like the guy the Marlins acquired for Starling Marte. Despite missing nearly three months due to a forearm injury, Luzardo and his changeup looked good when he was out there. Luzardo returned from his IL stint on Aug. 1. From there on, he ranked tied for 14th in fWAR among all major leaguers.
Unlike Alcantara and Cabrera, Luzardo doesn’t rely on his changeup as his primary pitch. It was his third-most used pitch last year at 22.6%. Opponents hit .190 against it with an SLG of .298.
After his return to the rotation in August, Luzardo upped the usage of his changeup from 15.4% to 25.8%. It, too, proved effective for him down the stretch.
Throughout the season, Luzardo had an outstanding 44.9% whiff rate on his changeup. This ranked him tied for eighth among the 149 pitchers to have at least 50 plate appearances end on a changeup. The pitch also had an impressive 27.8% strikeout rate and a 25% put-away rate.
Much of the success Luzardo has gotten out of his changeup has been based on his ability to locate.
Luzardo’s changeup lived in the lower-middle section of the strike zone. 11.6% of his changeups have been located in that spot, tying him for the second-highest rate among the 77 pitchers with at least 300 changeups thrown.
Of the 43 changeups Luzardo threw in that zone last year, 15 of them resulted in swings and misses (34.9%). That gave him the sixth-highest rate among the 74 pitchers with at least 25 pitches thrown in that part of the zone.
But even when hitters did make contact, their luck was no better. Opponents did not record a single hit against Luzardo’s changeup in the lower middle part of the zone. Of the 11 batted balls he allowed, none of them dropped in for hits.
Luzardo threw 100 innings for the first time in his career last season. He and his changeup will look to play a bigger role for the Marlins in 2023.
Sixto Sanchez has only logged 39 career innings in the Major Leagues and has missed the last two seasons due to multiple shoulder surgeries. However, the production he got from his changeup in 2020 is worth remembering, even after all that time.
Sanchez threw his changeup 26.7% of the time in his lone big league season, the highest rate of any pitch in his arsenal. What followed was one of the most effective pitches the world has ever seen.
In 58 plate appearances and 37 batted balls allowed, Sanchez’s changeup produced an RV/100 of -4.7. This meant for every 100 changeups he threw, Sanchez was preventing just over 4.5 runs from scoring based on his results. Among the 4,069 pitches from any pitcher to have at least 50 plate appearances end against them in any season since 2019, the -4.7 from Sanchez’s changeup was the fifth-lowest. On a list surpassing 4,000, that pitch was among the most effective.
Opponents hit .148 against Sanchez’s changeup in 2020 without an extra-base hit. Over two-thirds of the batted balls against the pitch were ground balls, the tenth-highest rate among the 79 pitchers with at least 25 batted balls against their changeup during the 2020 season. His -1.8° launch angle ranked tied for eighth-lowest on that same list.
Sanchez was particularly good at getting hitters to punch the ball straight into the ground against his changeup. 35.1% of the batted balls against his changeup had a launch angle below -15°, the sixth-highest rate. None of those batted balls went further than ten feet before hitting the ground.
Sanchez will start the 2023 season in AAA, but he can be an excellent comeback candidate for Miami if his changeup returns to form.
After finishing as the runner-up in the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year race, Trevor Rogers experienced a down year in 2022. On the surface, the results against his changeup contributed to this regression. But a more thorough examination determined Rogers’ changeup got the short end of the stick.
Opponents hit .246 and slugged .408 against Rogers’ changeup. Expected statistics indicate opponents should have slugged .343 against it, making a 65-point difference between the two. This ranked him the fifth-unluckiest among all big league pitchers with at least 100 batted balls against their changeup in 2022.
Rogers’ changeup had a sweet spot percentage against of 28.2% in 2022. The sweet spot is any batted ball with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Any pitcher wants hitters to avoid the sweet spot as much as possible, and Rogers did that well. The league sweet spot percent against changeups in 2022 was 31.4%, so Rogers’ rate was better than the average pitcher’s.
However, luck would not be in his favor when opposing batters did find the sweet spot. Such batted balls posted an average of .655 and a slugging of 1.034. Both were overwhelmingly unlucky with their corresponding expected metrics. If those numbers even out, Rogers will find more success in his changeup.
Despite the lackluster results overall, Rogers’ changeup had a solid batted ball profile. Like Sanchez, he also strived at getting hitters to punch the ball into the ground. 28.2% of batted balls against his changeup throughout 2022 had a launch angle below -15°, the fourth-highest rate minimum 100 batted balls against changeups.
Continuing this tradition in 2023 will be top prospect Eury Perez. Perez is MLB Pipeline’s 13th-ranked prospect and third-ranked pitcher. He specialized in, you guessed it, his changeup. The 6’8 19-year-old starter has a 70-grade changeup, according to MLB.com.
Perez’s changeup sits in the high 80’s, tops out in the 90’s, and has lots of movement. According to MLB.com, his changeup produced an astonishing 61% swing and miss rate in 2022. Overall, he had a swinging strike rate of 19% in 2022, the highest among the 145 AA pitchers who threw at least 70 innings.
The Miami Marlins will have a lot of hurdles to overcome in 2023. A strong NL East and rule changes will create several challenges for a franchise looking for its first full winning season since 2009.
The Marlins rotation had a 47.7% ground ball rate against changeups in 2022, leading the majors by over five percent. As a team, they deployed an infield shift on 44% of total pitches, the sixth-highest rate in the majors. With shift bans in place in 2023, the Marlins will have to see what impact this makes on the pitch they use more than any other team.