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.