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Corey Kluber’s first-pitch changeups

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It’s something odd, probably. Or interesting, at least.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been thinking about Corey Kluber’s Monday start a lot. It was Kluber at his best, devouring a bereft lineup and making it look easy. It featured a lot of the classics — a hearty dose of the sinker, a bunch of back-braking curves, and of course his cutter now and again. He only threw one four-seamer, which is odd. But it’s his changeup usage that really got my attention.

The changeup has never been a central piece in Kluber’s arsenal. Since hitting the majors as a full-time starter in 2013, the most he’s thrown it is 6.5 percent of the time, and that was last year. Considering the other pitches in his arsenal, from that truly lethal curve to his very underrated and highly dangerous cutter, he hasn’t had much need for it. The only real issue is needing a pitch to throw to lefties. Everything except his sinker moves towards the left-handed batters’ box, which isn’t always ideal — the hitter gets a better view. Having a secondary offering for left-handed hitters makes it so they can’t hunt sinkers as easily. And a great changeup might be the best pitch in baseball.

On Monday Kluber threw ten changeups out of his 103 total pitches. It’s more than he averages, but it’s also one game. It’s probably just noise as far as percentages go. But what caught me was when he threw it. Of those ten pitches, four of them came on the first pitch of an at-bat, and another on a 1-0 count. this probably shouldn’t be as fascinating to me as it is, but what can you do. From 2014 he’s thrown a first-pitch changeup 1.21 percent of the time. This year so far that rate has doubled, to 2.41 percent. It’s only seven total pitches of course. Batters study though. Seeing it even a little bit more than in the past can cause a ripple effect across his repertoire.

The thing about the changeup is that it needs something to change up on, right? Everything about it is the very basis of pitch sequencing. Unlike a fastball or knuckleball or even a really good slider, it needs to work off something else to be good. In this case, you have Kluber’s sinker and occasionally four-seamer. So going off-speed first pitch is a bit surprising. Let’s take a look at how each went down..

PITCH 1: 2nd inning, 1 out, 1 on, Mikie Mahtook batting:

It was a one-pitch at-bat, and an admittedly grooved pitch. A changeup middle-in to a right-handed hitter is borderline batting practice. Instead Mahtook flew out. Aggression is key in getting some runs off Kluber. Once he’s locked in, the game ends. But he’d started four of the previous five batters off with a sinker, and the outlier was a curve. So when Mahtook - an inexperienced hitter still trying to make an impression and stick in the bigs - saw a not-curve, surely he thought sinker. Instead he made weak contact on the ball and an out.

PITCH 2: 3rd inning, 2 out, bases empty, Leonis Martin batting:

This was Martin’s second at-bat and the beginning of Kluber’s second time through the order. To open the game Martin saw a sinker that tailed out of the zone, and Kluber had started the previous two batters this inning with a curveball, so it’s understandable that Martin would have no idea what to expect. Another curve perhaps, since all people, but especially pitchers, are creatures of habit? Bringing the change was a nice move by Kluber, some strong pitch-think. If Martin expects the sinker, he’s going to swing early and make poor contact. If he swings and expects the curve, he’s doomed regardles. Instead he took for a strike. THen Kluber played him hard by throwing another in the same place, which Martin likely expected to be a sinker. Just like that, a weak fly-out.

PITCH 3: 4th inning, 2 out, bases empty, Victor Martinez batting:

This is my favorite of these four pitches I’m chronicling. The Martin offering was definitely a mind-number of an attack from Kluber based on what he’d seen his last plate appearance and also that inning, but Victor Martinez bit hard on this one. In his first at-bat, Martinez singled on a sinker just below the zone:

So naturally, Kluber went back to the same exact location. Just seven or eight miles per hour slower, and with more straight down drop. Martinez’s eyes probably lit up, and only when he was mid-swing did crippling depression at being so hoodwinked set in. His mind was so broken in the moment, he ended up striking out. Kluber got his revenge.

PITCH 4: 7th inning, 1 out, bases empty, Victor Martinez batting:

After their last face-off, where Victor bit on a changeup where once there was a sinker and ultimateley struck out on a sinker at the top of the zone (see above), Kluber decidedly had the upper hand in the mental game. But surely he wouldn’t throw another changeup to lead off an at-bat. Martinez isn’t the hitter he once was, but he’s still got talent. Wrong, Kluber grooved what amounts to batting practice, and of course Martinez was taking all teh way.

THAT ONE CHANGEUP ON 1-0: Seventh Inning, 2 out, bases empty, Mikie Mahtook batting:

Let’s be honest, this was a bad pitch. Kluber led off the at-bat with a curve, then threw some kind of 88 mph pitch with some sink at the top of the zone. That’s too hard for his changeup usually, so I’m thinking it was a sinker that was mis-classified by the tracking system and Kluber was a bit tired. Mahtook isn’t a good hitter, so he could do nothing with it.

This is all probably nothing, just something fun and interesting that caught my eye. And whenever I do start an at-bat off with a changeup in MLB The Show that damn Eric Karros or the other one react with amazement. But I never have to deal with the thinking minds of real humans like Kluber does. It’s fun to see him continue to evolve though, if that’s what this actually is. You can’t live off just one pitch forever even if it’s one of the best pitches in the world, so him finding a strong off-speed pitch is a neat little development. I don’t expect it, but I’d like to see him start throwing it 15-ish percent of the time. He’s showed a steady trend of being a sub-50 percent fastball guy, and seeing that slide below even 45 or 40 percent would be unsettling for hitters. If the replacement pitch was something truly great anyway. It’s pretty cool how he changes like this, though.