The Cubs’ combination of patience, decreased strikeout rates, and an improved contact rate, to go along with the power bats already in tow, have made for a deeper offense in 2016 than what they showed a year ago.
But with the postseason here (and roster here), it is time for the Cubs to handle their next challenge.
Changeups can be effective against batters looking to do damage against fastballs. And if a good fastball-hitting team isn’t ready for the change of pace, they could succumb to a quality changeup.
Using FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values (you can read more about them here) as our guide, the Cubs’ -7.8 wCH against changeups ranked 23rd in baseball. As fate has it, the Giants will send Johnny Cueto – who possesses a quality change of his own – to start Game 1.
Cueto threw changeups 16.9 percent of the time in 2016, making it his third most used pitch behind his fastball (49.9%) and cutter (22.4%). The pitch grades out with a 3.7 wCH – which ranked 15th of 73 qualified starters. He has thrown 113 two-strike changeups in the lower third of the zone against right-handed batters in 2016, getting 66 swings (58.4%) and 36 whiffs (54.5%) on swings. [Brett: Good gravy.]
Kris Bryant sidestepped a sophomore slump by slugging 39 homers, driving in 102 runs and cutting his strikeout rate by 8.6 percentage points. But changeups from right-handed pitchers gave him problems at times, especially with two strikes.
Right-handed pitchers threw 69 changeups in the lower third of the zone against Bryant in two-strike counts this year, according to BrooksBaseball.net. Bryant swung at 34 of them (49.27%) and whiffed on 15 of those swings (44%). That’s a big number, considering on the other 148 two-strike pitches thrown in the same zone coaxed only a 32.43% whiff rate.
Bryant’s -4.5 wCH is the 10th worst in baseball. That is an eye-opening number when you take into consideration Bryant sees the 12th highest percentage of changeups – 14 percent. If he’s had a kryptonite in an otherwise incredible year, this is it.
It’s not as if Bryant has not shown the ability to make adjustments, though. Last year, he rated on the lower end against sliders (1.9 wSL) but improved upon that number greatly this season (8.7). Better days against the changeup are likely ahead.
For what it’s worth heading into tonight’s opener: Anthony Rizzo (10.7) has the best grade against changeups this year in all of baseball. So, not all is lost in this regard.
On the flip side, Cubs pitchers have used their changeups to the tune of a MLB-best 34.3 wCH. And the Giants’ -9.1 wCH makes them one of eight teams who have performed worse against changeups than the Cubs. Joe Panik (-5.2), Brandon Crawford (-4.4) and Denard Span (-2.6) all rank in the bottom 30 in handling changeups, per the wCH metric.
But they won’t have to face Cueto’s changeup on Friday night. [Brett: Sure … but good luck to them on Saturday against Kyle Hendricks.]