Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers still value the changeup

While the Pittsburgh Pirates have prioritized fastballs in years past and the league is becoming more slider-centric, Steven Brault and Jameson Taillon are making their changeups a focal part of their offseason plans.

Brault was asked during the media availability at Saturday’s PirateFest what he took away from his major league experiences with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season.

He answered that the changeup is far more effective in the majors than he previously had thought.

“It’s so much better than it is in the minor leagues. I don’t know why,” Brault said. “I think it’s because hitters have a better approach, so they’re sitting the pitch they want to see. So if you can really actually trick them into thinking its something else, [it works].”

Batters hit .190 and whiffed on 15.2 percent of his 79 major league changeups last year.

Brault’s goal for 2017 is to be able to throw his change following a fastball in the same spot and to be able to throw the pitch while behind in the count. While Baseball Savant says he threw it 12.3% of the time in an abbreviated major league stint last season, he rarely offered it once the count hit either three balls or two strikes.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Then repeat again.

Brault believes repetition is a more effective way to improve it, rather than focusing on mechanical changes. That is mostly because he knows he is going to throw it differently as the season progresses.

“Everybody changes their changeup grip five times a year. Ask any pitcher, they’ll tell you,” Brault said. “It’s a comfort pitch. You have to be able to throw it as hard as you can- as hard as you can throw a fastball- and make it do something else. So it has to be comfortable, otherwise it’s never going to work.”

“It’s so much better than it is in the minor leagues. I don’t know why,” Brault said

Taillon made one of those grip changes late in the season. For most of the year, he threw his changeup with a two-seam grip, trying to match his sinker’s delivery. For his final three starts, he went back to his native four-seam grip, yielding better results.

On 195 changeups with the two-seam grip in 2017, Taillon got a whiff on 8.2% of the time, a called strike 11.3% and a foul ball 19%. On the 33 he threw with a four-seam grip, he got a whiff 15.2% of the time, a called strike 15.2% and a foul ball on 27.3%.

According to Baseball Savant, Taillon threw his changeup significantly less than his other three pitches last year (785 two-seamers, 703 four-seamers and 602 curveballs compared to 228 changeups). It wasn’t because he or the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have faith in the pitch, though.

“I actually really like my changeup,” Taillon said. “It’s just that in the heat of the moment when you’re pitching and you’re facing Anthony Rizzo, I’m going to go to my curveball and survival mode when I’m out there.”

While he joked that throwing more changeups is one of those baseball cliches players try to convince themselves to say or do every year (in the same way just about every player will come to spring training “in the best shape of their life”), Taillon said he will be seriously looking to throw it more in 2018.

“It’s something for me that I have in my back pocket, and I need to, I think, change that mentality,” Taillon said. “When I pitch with three pitches and I’m pitching well…it just makes the game so much slower and easier for me.”

With a pitching philosophy that is undergoing radical change, the Pittsburgh Pirates hurlers might catch more than a few hitters off-guard in 2018.

Alex Stumpf

Alex is a credentialed Pirates beat reporter with The Pittsburgh Sports Report. If you want to keep up to date on the team or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.