In the NLDS, Stephen Strasburg was absolutely brilliant for the Nationals in his two starts. Due to an injury to Max Scherzer, Strasburg got the ball for Game 1 and was dominant. He threw 5.2 innings of no-hit ball before giving up back-to-back RBI singles to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo that allowed two unearned runs to score thanks to a rare error by Anthony Rendon. Strasburg finished with an impressive line of 7 IP 3 H 2 R 0 ER 1 BB and 10 K in a losing effort. Although his outing was ruined by the unearned runs and Kyle Hendricks’ outstanding start which shut down the Nationals offense, Strasburg made the Cubs hitters look foolish all night long. Getting the ball once again with his team down 2-1 in the series, Strasburg turned in another absolute gem in Game 4. In a 5-0 victory, Strasburg threw seven shutout innings, scattering three hits while walking two and striking out 12. In his two starts combined, Strasburg threw 14 innings without allowing an earned run, while only giving up six hits with three walks to go along with 22 strikeouts.
The dominance on display by Strasburg is nothing new. Despite being the second-best pitcher on his team, Strasburg is an ace and finished second (behind Scherzer) among NL pitchers with 5.6 WAR. When Strasburg come to mind, the immediate thought goes to his power fastball. It’s one of the main reasons why the Nationals selected him with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. He throws the pitch with an average velocity of 95.6 MPH good for fifth among qualified pitchers. Yet, Strasburg also loves to throw changeups, especially to right-handed hitters. Throughout the course of the regular season, Strasburg threw 16.3% changeups to right-handed hitters. This is an absurdly high amount for a power pitcher like Strasburg. Typically right-on-right changeups are primarily thrown by low-velocity sinkerballers, since changeups typically have the same movement as their sinker despite being thrown 5-10 MPH slower. Conventional wisdom has dictated for years that power pitchers should throw fastballs and curveballs (or sliders) to the same-handed hitters while throwing fastballs and changeups to opposite-handed hitters. The idea behind this is to throw a breaking pitch with movement that breaks away from the hitter, making it harder to hit. Right-on-right changeups were regarded as a dangerous pitch since a mistake almost always ended up with the pitch being barreled.
In 2013, Ben Lindbergh wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus about the Tampa Bay Rays (because who else besides Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman) and their increased usage of same-sided changeups (this article includes left-on-left changeups as well). However, the team refused to recognize this increased same-sided changeup usage as an intentional move, but rather tried to classify it as an increase in the emphasis on throwing changeups to all hitters regardless of handedness. As a team in 2013, the Rays led the league in percent of same-sided changeups, as 15.9% of all pitches thrown to same-sided hitters were changeups. The league average was 5.4%. This league average has held relatively constant over the last four years. Using Statcast data from 2017 for all right-on-right pitches thrown by starting pitchers, 6.6% of all right-on-right pitches were changeups.
Back to Strasburg. Throwing his changeup 16.3% of the time to right-handed hitters, he generated a whiff rate of 27.2% while only allowing five hits and 13 other balls in play, on 213 changeups. Four of those five hits were singles, while the other was a home run hooked down the line by Josh Harrison (hit probability of 13%). He used his changeup primarily as an out pitch, as most were thrown down and in with two strikes. It totally makes sense for Strasburg to use his changeup so much, as it is one of the best pitches in baseball, and it really is its own animal. It’s unique because he throws it really hard. It was the second-hardest changeup among qualified starters, coming in at an average of 88.7 MPH. Despite throwing it so hard, it was 7 MPH slower than his average fastball, right in the ideal range of velocity differential. It also has a decent amount of arm-side run to go along with late and sharp drop (as can be seen here). According to the Pitch Values assigned by FanGraphs, Strasburg’s changeup was fifth best among qualified starters in total value, and 10th best on a per-pitch basis.
In his Game 1 start, Strasburg threw six right-on-right changeups out of 45 pitches (13.3%) and generated four whiffs with zero balls in play. This was right in line with his season averages, which would’ve been expected to continue in Game 4. But this was not the case. It was reported on Tuesday that Strasburg was sick and would not pitch on Wednesday despite being on regular rest after the rainout. Yet, on Wednesday morning, plans changed and he was announced as the Game 4 starter with the Nationals season on the line. As mentioned earlier, he did his job by turning in a spectacular start, and the Nationals’ season lived to see another day. However, in Game 4 Strasburg decided to get funky. He threw 16 right-on-right changeups out of 45 pitches, equal to a whopping 35.6% of the time, and generated eight whiffs with one ball in play hit at 27.7 MPH. His changeup and its increased usage was no doubt a huge factor in shutting down the Cubs once again (as can be seen here, here, and here). Who knows why he decided to go to it so much more often. Maybe he saw the success he had with it in Game 1, or maybe that pitch was the most comfortable for him to throw while supposedly not feeling well (his average fastball velocity of 95.4 MPH suggests he was feeling just fine). No matter what it was, it doesn’t matter. Strasburg has proved that the right-on-right changeup can not only be an effective pitch, but an absolutely devastating one. A pitch that can even be used over a third of the time. Let’s see if hitters will be able to adjust.