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Trevor Bauer’s improved changeup could help him take the next step

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The mercurial pitcher has backed off his offspeed stuff. But maybe he shouldn’t.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

There are many words to describe Cleveland Indians hurler Trevor Bauer. Inventive. Infuriating. Intriguing. Tinkering. Probably some more rude ones too, but we won’t go into that here. This is Bauer’s fifth season in the Indians rotation, and each one has been fun just because we get to watch him morph from top prospect to, well, whatever he is right now. Never ending ball of potential? Sure, something like that. He’s gone from being a six or seven pitch pitcher down to a manageable four, and has started heavily featuring an amazing curveball quite a bit. But that’s now. I want to look at the past (2016) and the future (later than now, who knows when). Let’s look at Bauer’s changeup.

Yes, we all know about the vaunted changeup. The “best pitch in baseball” the pitcher’s best friend. Anyone who sat through the Johan Santana era in Minnesota remembers him making Tribesmen cry loudly whenever he spun one up. It’s an amazing pitch. Trevor Bauer has thrown a little of everything, so naturally he’s used it at one time or another. Especially last year:

Just an incredible spike there in 2016, driven in part because he all but stopped throwing his slider. There’s been a fall in 2017 to only 4.98 percent of the time since it seems he’s working on fastballs and the curve mostly. This pitch mix adjustment seems to be working despite the 5.83 ERA, since his FIP is a more promising 4.02, his DRA is way down at 3.55 and his SIERA is 3.37. That’s a lot of acronyms, but suffice to say he’s been more successful than the base numbers show.

His being successful doesn't mean he can’t grow and get better though. And judging from his past you know he’s going to want to add another excellent pitch. The key to an excellent change is it looking like your fastball. A key to that part is replicating your release point. Here’s Bauer’s four-seam release point in 2015 for his fastball and change:

It’s not a huge difference, just some inches, but major league hitters can see that. Plus, he was just undisciplined in his four-seam release point, which doesn’t help. He seems to have rectified that, sliding his release point for both so it’s no longer straight over the top:

It adds a bit of a different dimension to deceive the hitter more. He’s also getting more bite to the change than in the past

That’s 2015 and now. Sure, it doesn’t look like a whole ton, but that can be a big difference maker. With the drop in release point, and his constant attack of the top of the strike zone with his fastball, this could create quite the eye level change since the ball just seems to come in like an arrow out of his hand. A tumbling change can (and has) created a nice increase in swings and misses.

Two other points tell of the increasing quality of Bauer’s change, or at least his timing in throwing it. In 2015 he was throwing it at 83 mph and getting a ground ball off it 53.3 percent of the time. That bounced up to 86.4 mph last year with a 56.9 percent ground ball rate, and now 86.3 mph this season with a 66.7 grounder rate. While a slower change is good to pair off the fastball, it’s more about the spin and how it looks that fools the hitter, not just fade and break. It fools, causing an earlier swing (and does break some of course). The swinging strike rate has also climbed steadily from 8.7 percent in 2015 to 11.1 percent this year as he generates more whiffs. This could be nothing, especially since, as the above graph notes, he’s throwing it less. But less doesn’t mean bad. It just means using it at the right time.

It takes practice to learn a good change. But it takes more practice to learn a much harder pitch, the curveball. That’s the most non-fastbally pitch there is, requiring more than just a different hand grip and wrist snap as a change or cutter or two seam might. Bauer has turned that into solid gold thus far this season. A great changeup would get him to another level. He’s only thrown 80 this season going into his start on Wednesday, so we’re in wait and see mode, but using it at the right time (and locating it of course) is a key for his growth.

Something to watch.