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Let's speculate about Aaron Civale's new pitch

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You know what’s cooler than three great pitches? Four great pitches.

Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Baseball is a game of constant evolution. Pitchers are continually tweaking what they are throwing or how they are throwing to get an added advantage over hitters. When it works, it can result in a Cy Young season like Shane Bieber had last year when he casually created a new pitch in his pandemic downtime.

For Cleveland pitcher Aaron Civale, right now that constant tinkering means transitioning from a traditional changeup to a split-change. While discussing his mindset and preparation for the upcoming season, the always cerebral Civale also revealed that he is working on revamped pitch. From Cleveland.com:

“I’m transitioning to a split-change from a changeup,” he said. “Just a little bit better pairing with the pitches that I currently have. There’s some shortening of the arm path for timing, sequence. There’s a few things that are visibly different. Once we get into games I’m sure you’ll be able to see some of it. It’s a good transition. Pretty smooth.”

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.

For one, split-finger pitches — be it a fastball or a changeup — are a dying breed in Major League Baseball, but the few pitchers that use them have a lot of success with them. Kirby Yates has ridden his split-fastball to success as a late-inning reliever. Starters Nathan Eovaldi and Jake Odorizzi still use splitters as well, and the pitch is still wildly popular in Japan’s Nippon Baseball League.

Masahiro Tanaka used a split-fastball during his seven years with the Yankees and he finished with an 80 ERA- and 23.1% strikeout rate before returning home to play in Japan. Two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani also uses a split-fastball, and when he’s healthy and able to pitch on a schedule it has the makings of a devastating pitch.

That’s not technically what we’re talking about here, though.

Civale is primarily a sinker-cutter-curveball pitcher and he gets by on deception, location, and high spin rates instead of raw velocity. He does have a changeup now, but it’s used 9.2% of the time as his second-to-last used pitch ahead of his four-seamer (2.5%), which he has basically abandoned. Coming up through the minors, Civale’s changeup was his least impressive pitch unless you count his underwhelming fastball velocity. FanGraphs rated it as a 45 on the 20-to-80 scale in 2019, but he had so many other pitches that it didn’t matter.

Now, perhaps taking after his Cy Young-winning teammate, Civale has decided that there’s no such thing as too many good pitches and he’s working on a split-changeup to add to his arsenal.

Right now, Kenta Maeda is probably the most popular pitcher to throw a split-change, and it’s a killer. It’s Maeda’s second-most used pitch and he has increased his changeup usage every year since 2017, from 10% to 29.4% in 2020.

Like Civale, Maeda doesn’t have a blistering fastball, but he excels at locating pitches and he can spin the snot out of his curveball. He, too, used to throw a standard circle changeup until he switched over to the split after he found it to be ineffective.

Since 2018, when he first switched to a split-grip, Maeda’s changeup ranks as the ninth-best change in major-league baseball based on FanGraphs’ weighted pitch value. His particular changeup succeeds because the bottom can drop out like few other changeups can. In 2020 the pitch had 35.9 inches of vertical drop, 4.9 inches (or 16%) more than the average changeup, according to Baseball Savant.

Looking at Maeda’s usage on Brook’s Baseball, you can see when he shifted over to his splitter, even while it was still being categorized as a normal changeup.

Brook’s Baseball

In case you still can’t see it, I have enhanced it for clarity.

Right there

For 12 glorious pitches, Maeda tricked the system into thinking his same-old change was a miracle worker while opposing batters still weren’t sure how to deal with it. Instead, it was his split-grip doing all the heavy lifting. His changeup went from a 15.77% whiff rate in 2016 (when it was a standard circle grip) all the way up to 26.64% in 2020.

Of course, Maeda is not the only pitcher to throw a split-changeup in recent history. Astute followers of Cleveland’s baseball team over the last decade may already have a couple of names in mind.

Carlos Carrasco’s split-change has a very similar story to Maeda. While his grip isn’t quite as split as Maeda’s (and Brook’s Baseball still calls it a changeup), it’s precisely what you would call a split-grip changeup and it’s just as devastating. Cookie’s version of the pitch featured a 35.7-inch drop in 2018 at its peak and a 34.5-inch drop in 2019.

Where the two pitchers differ is that Carrasco was also able to identify that he needed a new changeup much sooner than Maeda. In a 2017 interview with FOX Sports Ohio, he revealed that he began working on the new grip as early as 2009, shortly after he was traded to Cleveland. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Since debuting with Cleveland that year, Carrasco’s changeup ranks 19th in all of baseball according to weighted pitch value, and it’s helped him carry an 88 ERA- and 25.5% strikeout rate as one of Cleveland’s best pitchers for over a decade.

Danny Salazar also rode a devastating split-ish changeup to an All-Star appearance in 2016 and streaks of looking like one of the best pitchers in baseball, before the wheels fell off on his career in the last couple of years.

Unlike Maeda and Carrasco, Salazar didn’t struggle with his changeup and move over to a split-grip later in his career. He had this bad boy from the moment he signed with Cleveland in 2006 out of the Dominican Republic. There was little doubt of its dominance once he started to reach the upper levels of the minors.

But calling Salazar’s changeup a “split-change” is a bit of a misnomer. He didn’t actually hold the changeup like a split, but instead, a unique grip that he learned as a kid that just kind of ... stuck.

It was labeled a split-change, though, because it — like Maeda’s actual split-change — moved straight down when it got to the plate.

I bring this up not only because Danny Salazar rules and I wanted one more reason to talk about him, but because it might be what Aaron Civale is doing. He never explicitly says he’s going to a split-change grip, just that he’s going to be throwing a split-change. The movement is what is important here. Civale also mentions shortening his arm path and sequencing — simply put, there’s more than just how he’s gripping the ball in play here.

Civale lacks a changeup with any drop right now — only 28.7 inches, or 6% below league average. What he does have is a cutter that moved with a 2.1-inch break in 2020 (73% better than league average) and a 3.4-inch break in 2019 (163% [!!!] better than league average). When Maeda made the switch to a split-change in 2018, he saw the vertical drop on his changeup go from 28 inches to 34.2 inches — from below average to near-elite movement in a single offseason. Is Civale looking for a similar improvement?

Michael Ajeto over at Pitcher List just last month suggested that Civale should do something like this to play off the horizontal movement of his cutter. Ajeto’s solution was for Civale to throw more of his curveball, which is one of the steepest curves in the game. He could — and should — still do that, but adding a changeup that has more vertical break to it could have a similar effect: get more ground balls, give up fewer dingers.

If Civale can get something like Maeda’s changeup break and mirror and/or tunnel it with his other horizontal wipeout pitches (not to mention that hammer curveball), we could be looking at an impressive third-year out of the young pitcher.

At the very least, we have something interesting to keep an eye on in spring training.