2017 Reds

Finnegan’s changeup: A reply

Wasn’t planning on writing anything here this morning. (This started as a comment, grew too big, and is kind of thrown together.) But I read Chad’s thought-provoking post from earlier this morning about Brandon Finnegan’s magical changeup and the Eno Sarris article about it. I really hoped that Sarris was onto something, that there’s solid evidence Finnegan became a better pitcher at the end of last year. And, my wishful thinking followed, based on that proof, there’s reason to believe Finnegan’s improvement will continue.

But I have doubts. Let me express them briefly.

A couple weeks ago, I researched an idea for a RN post about Finnegan’s 2016 season. The numbers took me to a dead end. I found that amid an otherwise lackluster, but durable, season-long performance, Finnegan did have three tremendous, promising games in a row at the end of August. I thought maybe something was happening. But I concluded after looking at his performance in September, that there wasn’t. At least nothing reliable.

It’s tempting to look at Finnegan’s last 6-7 games. Sarris builds his case about Finnegan’s improved change-up on the pitcher’s final SIX games. But his SEVENTH from last game, against the LA Dodgers, was one of his best. Finnegan had 8 Ks and 2 BBs. But Sarris didn’t include that game because Finnegan only used his changeup 12.5% of the time. It didn’t cross Sarris’ 20% threshold for his theory.

In Finnegan’s final six starts – the ones that Sarris builds his theory around – Finnegan did pitch two excellent games, against the D-Backs and Angels where he struck out a combined 21 and walked just 2. More of that, please.

But in Finnegan’s last four games – with the elevated new-fangled changeup in use – he struck out 18 and walked 12. Bleh. Further, his “whiff rate” for the changeup in those four games was also pedestrian, about 15%. Finnegan’s whiff rate against Arizona and the Angels was 46%. Cue sad trombone.

There are two large confounding factors that should cause us to tap the brakes on drawing the conclusion that Brandon Finnegan was transformed after receiving the gift of Dan Straily’s magic changeup:

First, we’re talking really small samples. Really tiny. I know some of you hate it when people pull out the SSS card to make a point. But take a look at the raw numbers here and you’ll get grounded pretty fast. In three of the Sarris’ six magic games Finnegan’s total number of swings and misses on changeups was three or fewer. Three pitches or fewer. Seven pitches total over three games. You’re welcome to install Finnegan in the starting rotation based on seven pitches if you want, but you won’t be my general manager.

Second, the level of competition and contention was significantly variable. Finnegan did his business against teams that were out of contention. He had high changeup whiff rates against Arizona (52.2%), the LA Angels (40.0%) and Milwaukee (18.7%). But against the three teams still in contention, his whiff rate wasn’t that great: NY Mets (14.3%), Pittsburgh (21.7%) and Pittsburgh again (5.9%).

I’d love it be true that 2016 proved Brandon Finnegan was a reliable major league starting pitcher. That case would be based on a few strong games at the end of the year and a magical changeup.

But it’s equally plausible that the success Finnegan had with his changeup at the end of the year was due to his opposition, not the velocity gap Sarris documents. Either way, the number of changeups from a handful of games is too small to conclude anything meaningful. Magic makes for good entertainment to pass the time in the offseason, but that’s about it.

Finnegan is young (23) and has plenty of time and potential to develop into a good major league starting pitcher. And maybe when he does, Dan Straily’s changeup will be part of his repertoire. We might even look back and point to those last two games in August 2016 as a turning point. But as of now, there’s just not enough solid evidence.

9 thoughts on “Finnegan’s changeup: A reply

  1. Steve I’m going to choose optimism here, based not on the results (as you say, too small a sample to be truly convincing, with too many variables to control for) but based on two factors that are outcome independent. First, Finnegan has developed a change up that presents a 10 mph difference to hitters. Whether he sells it well yet or not I don’t know, but the speed difference is encouraging. Second, he appears to have gained confidence in the change based on frequency of use. Those two data points bode well in my eyes. His big problem is not lack of a quality change, it’s inconsistency of control and specifically of finding the strike zone (as opposed to pinpoint control in or at the edges of the zone). If he is developing a third pitch that COULD be deceptive to accompany a solid slider, and if confidence in all three pitches allows him to avoid nibbling and trying to throw the perfect pitch and simply pound the zone with three very different pitches, he will only get better. That’s where I see cause for optimism. I agree with you that he’s not there yet and six or seven games do not an ace make, but I agree with Chad that there’s reason to be hopeful for his continued progress. At mid-season I’d have rated him a distant third among left handed starting prospects, well behind Reed and Garrett. Now I’d say he’s caught up to both. That can’t be a bad thing.

    • I agree with most of that, other than when you must have accidentally typed “ace” in a comment about Brandon Finnegan. 🙂

      Seriously, yes to all of that. But let’s also keep in mind these numbers – 73 pitchers threw enough innings to qualify as a starting pitcher last year. Brandon Finnegan ranked #67 in xFIP and #70 in FIP. Yes, it’s a good thing that he threw enough innings to qualify. For sure. Durability, check. Experience, check. But he’s been nowhere near an average starting pitcher, yet.

      OTOH, say this over and over: He’s 23.

      • But he’s earned a second look.
        He had a great start against the Cubs at Wrigley early in the season…and was clearly better after the all star break with the change up. I was at that Dodgers game and he was pounding the strike zone and was very good. I am sure there were days he had his live fastball and others he needed a change up 150+ innings into the year with a tired arm. Most good pitchers adjust that day based on what’s working and how confident they are in commanding which pitch… Arroyo was a master at that. I loved listening to his post game press conferences ripping how bad this pitch sucked but how he and the catcher just went with pitch B at arm angle C instead.

        Swing and miss rates on change-ups don’t measure the value or purpose of the pitch. The primary purpose of a change-up isn’t to swing and miss….it’s to disrupt timing. A successful change-up ends with a nice polite 3 hopper to shortstop…..not a K. Or…its a set-up pitch, the purpose of which is to make that next fastball better. Mario Soto being the exception. He could tell you its coming and no one could hit it anyway.

        Lets see how 2017 goes.

  2. The two stats that I have often thought were really telling before there were sabermetrics were 1) homerun rate and 2) walk rate. This indicates a guy who cant control the zone and also hitters can line up and hit hard. He was basically dead last in these categories. I would love to know if any successful starter could be found among guys who lead the league in BOTH categories. So I am sure the more complicated stats say the Finnegan struggled last year but I think they underestimated his deep deep problems as a starter. By the way, we had someone on the staff who also fits this . . . . Cody Reed.

  3. I am also mostly and old school guy. I see a lot of value in some metrics, some not so much. I agree with Steve that we have a really small sample size to deal with. However a 2.25 ERA from the last week of July on, is something that gives me a great deal of hope.

  4. Finnegan allowed 29 home runs, tied for 14th worst in all of major league baseball. However, in his last 7 starts, he did not allow a HR in 5 of them. Only once, early in the season, did he have a similar stretch of “HR less” starts.

    Hopefully, the change can reduce the gopher ball numbers in 2017 and bring down the scary FIP numbers.

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