Kill the Win

How good has Brandon Finnegan’s changeup been?

This season has been a roller coaster for Brandon Finnegan. When I wrote my most recent column about him four weeks ago, he was among the worst qualified starters in a number of areas (ERA, FIP, xFIP, K%, BB%) after a rough stretch of starts.

But in the month of August, he’s started to show some real consistency, improving in each of those first four categories. His two most recent starts have arguably been the two best of his young career, as he allowed just one hit in seven innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 20 and struck out a career-high 12 batters against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 26.

In that column, I also talked about the changeup being a crucial pitch for him, as he’s significantly better when he’s throwing it well. Unsurprisingly, the change has been a big reason for his recent success.

As Reds beat writers C. Trent Rosecrans and Mark Sheldon both wrote about recently, Finnegan has been using a new grip on his changeup (taught to him by Dan Straily) to give him more control of the pitch.

From Finnegan himself (via Sheldon):

“I started off the year well with it and then I hit a spot where I couldn’t stop cutting it. It was like a second slider. To get it back and working — if it wasn’t for Mr. Straily over there — I’d still be without a changeup. I’ve been working hard on it. Every ‘pen I work on it. Hopefully I can keep it going.”

The revamped pitch been incredibly effective and he’s starting to show the same confidence in the pitch that he did at the beginning of the season, when he dominated the Philadelphia Phillies in the second game of the year and took a no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs into the seventh inning. Here’s a look at his usage of the pitch by month:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (15)

Just how effective has the pitch been for Finnegan? Hitters have had next to no success when putting the changeup into play this season, batting a mere .105 with a .158 slugging percentage. The average exit velocity against it has been 80.3 mph, tied for the sixth lowest mark among all pitchers who have had 25 or more batted balls on the change. This month, that number has dropped to a ridiculously low 74.5 mph. For the season, the spin rate on Finnegan’s changeup is 1,660 revolutions per minute, a good bit better than the league average of 1,750 (remember, a lower spin rate for a changeup is good).

Despite all of this, his whiff rates on the pitch have been mediocre, sitting at 15.3 percent for the season — exactly in line with the league average. Until recently, that is. In August, that number has jumped to 26.3 percent.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (16)

Regaining control of his putaway pitch has fueled Finnegan’s success. His strikeout rate has jumped to 26.9 percent this month, far better than his previous monthly high of 19.0 percent back in April. As a result, his numbers across the board have gotten better, as he’s posted a 2.67 ERA, 4.47 FIP, and 4.04 xFIP in five starts this month.

Overall, his stat line still isn’t pretty and his high walk and home run rates haven’t come down at all. But what’s important is the 23-year-old has shown real progress with his performance over the last four weeks. If he can continue to keep hitters off balance with the changeup to supplement his sinker and slider, he should continue to get better.

The last time I wrote about Finnegan, the question I asked was, “Can he stick as a starting pitcher?” At the time, the answer was a resounding “I don’t know.” There’s still plenty of uncertainty in answering that question, but his recent development has him trending in the right direction.

14 thoughts on “How good has Brandon Finnegan’s changeup been?

  1. I’m still a believer. I want him in the rotation for the years to come. Another name that I think of when it comes to starting slow and getting better is Aaron Harang. I’m NOT saying that they are similar pitchers in style, but in terms of developing from “so-so” to something better.

    Harang didn’t even break into the Bigs until his age 24 season. From 2002-04 he had a combined FIP of 4.57, and wasn’t doing anything special (though I acknowledge his walk rate was lower than Finnegan’s). Still, he was pedestrian at best, until you see the light click “on” in 2005, his age 27 season. He then began a run of strong pitching and got his ERA+ over 100 for the first time.

    • I see Finnegan as a little more “blue collar” than Harang. I really enjoyed Harang; but, in listening to him talk, he often seemed like artist more than a competitor. Or put another way, he competed against an ideal of perfection of what he should be as much as just trying to get the the guy he was facing out. In the end however, it worked fine for AH. I just sense a sharper edge in Finnegan. I often wonder if perhaps AH had shown this sort of edginess at certain points if he would have ascended from being quietly borderline elite to being a truly great pitcher.

  2. At the very least I think that Finnegan has cemented his status that he’ll start 2017 in the rotation. Long term, the bullpen may be where he ends up, but he deserves another shot at starting still.

  3. Very nice of Finnegan to credit Dan Straily with this. Another benefit coming from signing Straily.
    Both Chris Welsh and Jeff Brantley have changed their tunes on Finnegan as well. Both were getting critical of him during the high point in his slump. Both also credit his better command of his change-up as the main reason and say he is such a better pitcher with this pitch working.
    Thanks for presenting the evidence to back it up.
    I had resigned myself to think that Finnegan was best suited for the back end of the bullpen. You present enough to say hit the brakes on that idea and logic. The progress by Finnegan after such a bad stretch is very encouraging. Yes, clearly Finnegan has pitched himself back into the forefront of the rotation discussion for 2017. It was DeSclafani last year, and now Finnegan steps forward this year. They make a nice R-L tandem going forward into 2017 to build the rotation around. The loss of Iglesias from the rotation has hurt, but with how Finnegan has stepped up it has been very beneficial. Now if Iglesias can only withstand the rigors of starting, the Reds have a very nice core #2-#3-#4 starters in DeSclafani-Finnegan-Iglesias. Homer bouncing back is crucial.

    • It really is underrated how teammates can teach and learn from each other. I remember Johnny Cueto said he had an “epiphany” while watching either Bronson Arroyo or Mike Leake pitch, and it finally clicked for him that he didn’t need to try to throw every pitch through a brick wall. From that time on, Cueto slowly developed into the Johnny Beisbol we all knew and loved.

      It just goes to show that if you stock your team with talent, that talent tends to feed off itself and create an sum greater than the parts. The Reds have a lot of young talented players now, let’s see if guys like Votto and Homer (if he ever gets healthy) can impart some of their wisdom on them and make the whole team better for it.

      • I also enjoyed that part of the story. Here you have straily who was ‘this close’ to being out of baseball or a MiLB free agent showing a younger pitcher how to be better when it might even cost him a starters job later.

        Its one of those unquantifiable benefits that a higher-character veteran can bring to a team, especially in a re-verbofchoice-ing year.

        Contrast that with some of the stories about Barry Bonds and others who were extreme introverts (to be nice about it).

      • Good point about teammates learning from each other. I never was a great hitter but I never had anything resembling an approach until I talked to one of our best hitters. He told me what he was trying to do up there. It was after that conversation that I first started going up there with an idea aside from “see the ball, hit the ball”. It made me a much better hitter, even if my raw talent wasn’t good enough for pro ball.

  4. I know that Finnegan has had an up (and more) down year, but there is just something about him I like. It was the same kind of feeling I had about Cueto and Disco. I don’t want to predict that he’s the best thing out there, but I have high hopes for him and his future as a red.

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