In Defense Of Dinelson Lamet’s Changeup

The other day the ever-informative Keith Law was on the Darren Smith Show, and regarding Dinelson Lamet, he said this:

I think he’s going to be a very good reliever, in time. He has no third pitch to speak of to be able to get lefties out. He didn’t get lefties out in the minors, this year or last year. It’s fastball, breaking ball. They’re both pretty good.

Beyond just Law, I’ve heard a couple of other references to Lamet either not having a changeup at all or not having a good one.

First off, Law’s mostly right about Lamet’s struggles against lefties in the minors. This year, in Triple-A El Paso, Lamet surrendered an .808 OPS to lefties, with 27 strikeouts to 14 walks. Last year, spread between three levels, he allowed a much better .688 OPS against lefties, but recorded just 43 strikeouts and 31 walks in 233 plate appearances against the species (compared to 115 strikeouts and 30 walks in 396 PAs vs. righties).

There’s an argument there, considering pitching environments and small samples, that Lamet actually improved against lefties this year in El Paso. Despite the jump in OPS, his strikeout rate vs. lefties skyrocketed from 18.5 percent in 2016 to 26.7 percent in 2017; his walk rate stayed the same, bumping up from 13.3 percent in ’16 to 13.9 percent in ’17.

Anyway, the other (more important) thing: Lamet definitely has a changeup. According to Brooks Baseball, he’s thrown it 14.1 percent of the time over his first two starts in the majors. FanGraphs has it at either 15.1 or 16.9 percent, based on their two pitch classification methods. Let’s call it 15 percent, but it’s there.

But is it any good?

I’m no scout, but I think the answer to that is . . . maybe? David Jay, at MadFriars, noted the strides Lamet made with the changeup in the minors this season:

Coming into this year, we kept Lamet at number 12 on our top 20 list, wanting to see if he could deploy his change-up effectively enough to stave off talk about a potential move to the bullpen.

By the time I got to El Paso to see him mid-April, such concerns seemed pretty silly.

While he still has bouts of wildness, and he’s not needed to rely on his change-up too often in game situations, as I got on film in our most recent interview with him, he was showing it consistently in his bullpen work.

That would jibe with the sudden (peripheral) improvement against lefties in Triple-A this year and also with the change we’ve seen at the big-league level so far. Here’s a Lamet changeup to Michael Conforto, one of the pitches I highlighted after Lamet’s debut:

It’s not easy to evaluate the quality of a single pitch on video (or advisable, probably), but consider a couple of obvious things:

Speed differential from fastball: This change registered at 90 mph, which is something like five to seven mph off Lamet’s cheese. You might think that’s not a large enough differential between the fastball, but it’s only a mph or two off the league average FB-CH separation. Lamet seems to sit around 88-90 with the change, when it’s working well. That’d be like right on the league average speed differential, assuming the fastball is coming in at 96.

Speed differential: Fine

Location: A basic fundamental truth about pitching is that you’d like to throw the ball exactly where you intend to throw it. Note Austin Hedges‘ flash of the target there, which is naturally where he wants the pitch (and where Lamet wants to throw it, presumably). Lamet hits his spot, dead on. It’s one pitch, but having command of the change is super important.

Location: Very good

Results: It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, on one pitch of course, but it’s always a good sign when a pitch produces a positive result for the pitcher. Conforto, a certified lefty masher, swung through this 0-1 changeup. He swung through another change from Lamet later that night, on a 3-2 count, a pitch which shared important characteristics with this one (89 mph, perfect location, whiff).

Results: Peachy

Against the Cubs on Tuesday night, Lamet got Kris Bryant to swing through a (so-so) change for a strikeout. He threw a perfectly located first pitch changeup to Jon Jay to lead off the fourth, which Jay took for a strike. And then he threw this one, to Kyle Schwarber, with two outs in the fifth inning:

Overall (*super-duper small sample alert*), among all starting pitchers with at least 10 changeups thrown, Lamet ranks 10th in whiffs/swing at 45.45 percent. He’s thrown just 26 changeups and induced 11 swings and five whiffs, so, yeah, back up the salt truck. Still, it’s something. (By the way, Lamet’s change is currently second in velocity among starters, behind only speedball artist Noah Syndergaard. His four-seam velo rank is 12.)

There’s a final thing to note here, just in case Lamet’s changeup doesn’t end up being a particularly useful pitch. He doesn’t necessarily need a good one to get by. There are a number of pitchersChris Archer, Luis Severino, Michael Pineda, Clayton Kershaw, Lance McCullers (as @TooMuchMortons mentioned the other day), etc.—who get by with a bunch of breaking balls and fastballs, and a lot of them are really good. There’s some selection bias there, of course. A lot of pitchers don’t get by without a changeup, and so they don’t show up on major-league leaderboards. Also, this isn’t to say that Lamet’s on the level of a McCullers, in terms of overall quality, but he is already going to the slider at a 30 percent clip. It’s just something to consider.

I don’t want to prop Lamet’s changeup up too much. It’s just two starts, so naturally the jury is still out on whether the pitch can be a reliable one for Lamet. But, remember, he’s just 24, and the change is often a pitch that takes time to refine. Lamet’s seemingly made progress with it in pretty short order, and the early usage (and success) at the big-league level suggests that it’s something that can develop into a true out pitch for Lamet. At worst, it’s a pitch he can flash to mix things up.

We’ll see how it turns out, but the Lamet-to-bullpen takes can probably take a backseat, at least for now.

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