La Velle E. Neal had a good read today on new Twins pitching coach Neil Allen being a proponent of throwing changeups. Allen comes from the Tampa Bay organization, where changeups are preached and thrown. Per FanGraphs, Rays pitchers threw 15.8 percent changeups last season — second-most in MLB behind the White Sox.
As with any story that suggests a team is doing something new as it introduces different coaches and ideas into the mix, it also begs a few questions. Is it really new? Have the Twins not been throwing changeups in the past? And if so (or if not so), what could be some of the factors? Let’s examine:
*Is it really new for the Twins to preach and teach changeups? Yes and no. A search through the Star Tribune archives doesn’t reveal a whole lot of articles about former pitching coach Rick Anderson teaching changeups to specific pitchers, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it never happened. There was one prominent mention from 2002:
LaTroy Hawkins credits new pitching coach Rick Anderson for teaching him a changeup that has made the righthander much more effective. “I`m throwing everything now,” Hawkins said. “Andy taught me a changeup about a week ago and I’ve been throwing it my last three outings, and it’s worked pretty good for me so far. I’ve been blessed with a good arm. I just try to take care of it and hopefully I can throw that hard for about four or five more years.”
You’ll note that the story was from when Anderson was new — just as Allen is. You’ll also note that Hawkins is STILL pitching, far exceeding that four to five year plan.
*Have the Twins not thrown many changeups in previous years? It’s useful here to start with 2014, another dismal year for Twins pitchers. Minnesota hurlers threw just 8.0 percent changeups — about half the number Rays’ pitchers threw, and 23rd in MLB. That’s puzzling since the Twins haven’t been blessed with many hard throwers in recent years. It stands to reason that adding changeups could have been an effective weapon for starters who aren’t bullet-throwers since the speed difference is a great equalizer no matter if the 10 mph difference is between 90 and 80 or 95 and 85. … And going to 2013 for another glance, the Twins ranked about the same: 8.6 percent changeups (21st in MLB), while the Rays were No. 1 at close to 20 percent.
If you dig further, though, you find the Twins near the top: in 2012, their pitchers threw 11.3 percent changeups, 7th in MLB; in 2011, they were at 12.2 percent, 9th in MLB that year. Neither of those season were good pitching years, either. Going back to 2010, the last time the Twins were good (and the last time their pitching as whole was competent), they were at 12.3 percent, 8th in MLB. And if you go back to 2004-2007, the heyday of Johan Santana, they were 10th in MLB in changeup percentage during that span. So it’s not like they never had pitchers who threw good changeups, nor have they shied away from throwing them
*Why did Twins pitchers, as a staff, stop throwing changeups? That’s probably the most puzzling question. When Minnesota had capable pitching in the 2000s, their pitchers threw changeups. Even as things started to go south in 2011 and 2012, they were still throwing changeups. Did pitchers who were roughed up in 2011 and 2012 shy away from them in 2013 and 2014? Was it a matter of new pitchers these past two years who weren’t comfortable throwing changeups or didn’t need them that contributed to the dip? (Phil Hughes, by far the Twins best starter last season, threw just 0.2 percent changeups but that didn’t hurt his season one bit). Did Anderson and Ron Gardenhire start stressing different tactics, like sinkers or different fastball grips?
That part is hard to quantify, but as we mentioned before the dip is particularly puzzling on a staff that doesn’t have a lot of hard throwers. Time will tell if Allen’s preaching of the changeup bears itself out in the numbers or if Minnesota pitchers revert to old form. New Twins pitcher Ervin Santana threw 14.2 percent changeups last year, so he should boost the number. Then again, Jared Burton — who threw a staggering 36.7 percent changeups last year in relief — is gone. The final percentage number will likely be determined by a combination of the pitchers’ natural inclinations plus the results they see in early sample sizes from what Allen is teaching them.
We’ll try to circle back at the end of the season, or even a couple of months in, to compare Twins pitchers from 2014 to this season to see if there is a marked difference in changeups thrown.