Edward Cabrera throws a changeup that’s unlike any other in baseball history. Its peak velocity of 96 MPH is the fastest of the pitch-tracking era, even exceeding the 2022 league average for fastball velo. It’s a ridiculous statistic, but baseball fans know that velocity does not always correlate with success.
That was the case for Cabrera back in 2021: his changeup was absolutely torched by opposing batters during his debut campaign with the Marlins. He allowed a .455 BA and a 1.091 SLG in at-bats ending with a changeup. RV/100, or run value per 100 pitches, is a rate stat that approximates the value of a individual pitch type in a pitcher’s repertoire. Per RV/100, Cabrera’s changeup was the second worst pitch in ALL OF BASEBALL (min. 100 pitches thrown). It was, in no uncertain terms, completely ineffective.
And then? Something changed.
How about Edward Cabrera's 96 mph CHANGEUP pic.twitter.com/cwcR9orBp2— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 1, 2022
Cabrera’s 2022 Changeup
Fast forward a year. It’s Cabrera’s sophomore season, and he’s throwing his changeup 10% more often than he previously did. It’s his most-used pitch, in fact, and it’s phenomenal. His RV/100 has gone from 6.6 in 2021, all the way down to –2.6 this past season. That .455 BA/1.091 SLG line has been improved to .172 BA/.269 SLG. He’s gone from making hitters look like Barry Bonds to making them look like DFA candidates.
What sort of magic is Marlins pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. working here? These are limited sample sizes, but a change in results that massive must be the result of something. Cabrera’s changeup drew mixed reviews when he was a prospect coming up through the Marlins system, yet it’s now ranked as one of the best weapons at the highest level of the sport. What was the fix?
Changes in Shape
The traditional suspects in a situation like this would be a difference in grip or release that leads to a difference in movement. It’s what Corbin Burnes did following a disastrous 2019, shifting his fastball grip slightly to create one of the more devastating pitches in all of baseball, his cutter. Does this apply to Cabrera? Doesn’t look like it.
Edward Cabrera's Changeup grip.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2022
Just do this, and make it go 96mph, and you can have a 96mph Changeup too. pic.twitter.com/oFASc7uRsX
In terms of shape, Cabrera’s changeup moves the exact same to the plate over the course of the last two years.
In terms of velocity Cabrera saw an increase of 0.4 mph, sitting at 92.5 mph, topping out at 96. While it could be a piece of the puzzle, it’s likely not the whole puzzle. Spin rate does provide an interesting angle, as Cabrera’s did decrease by 5% in 2022. A lower spin rate in conjunction with an elevated velocity produces a pitch that mimics a fastball out of the hand, only to leave the batter swinging over the top as the lack of spin allows gravity to pull the ball closer to the earth. It’s the magnus effect that makes fastballs so effective, except reversed—instead of fighting against gravity, Cabrera is leaning all the way into it.
Stats like spin efficiency, total movement, and active spin all remained the same in 2022 for Cabrera, leaving spin rate as the most notable change from year to year.
Location, Location, Location
It’s a principle as applicable to real estate just as it is hurling a baseball. Cabrera’s ability to locate the changeup and maximize its effectiveness was as important—if not much more—than any bump in velocity when it came to improving the pitch. While this isn’t changeup specific, look at the map of run values by pitch zones for the past two seasons:
Edward looks like two completely different pitchers here, and that’s to be expected. He was a rookie! He’s bound to get better as he gains experience. The focus here is how Cabrera utilized the shadow zone so much more effectively in 2022, as a primary result of his changeup.
In 2021, Cabrera had a value of +5 in the heart of the zone and –1 in the shadow on his changeup, but a year later, it was -3 and –8, respectively. Cabrera’s success has hinged on a willingness to take risks, as he’s nearly doubled the percentage of his pitches that are out-of-zone changeups. When Cabrera leaves his changeup in the zone, righties can barely touch it, but lefties are crushing it.
Cabrera throws nearly all his changeups to his arm side, meaning that a miss to a righty might hit them/brush them back, but a miss to a lefty is going to be middle-middle, or middle-away. How do you prevent small mistakes from leading to big damage? Don’t come close to the zone. Locate far enough off the plate that a “miss” only nibbles the zone. With a changeup that looks like a fastball, Cabrera can deceive a righty into thinking they can turn on something inside, only to watch it bottom out a few feet from the plate. Lefties think they can punch it to the opposite field; instead, they ground it weakly to the left side of the diamond (if they even make contact).
A remarkable 21% of Cabrera’s total pitches in 2022 were changeups out of the zone. He threw 263 of them, resulting in only three total hits, all of them driven into the ground. With a .073 BA against, a 40% whiff rate, and a 25.4 K% on changeups out of the zone, Cabrera has found his go-to pitch.
Pairing with the Fastball
In case hitters decide to lay off these changeups, it allows Cabrera to turn to his 4-seam for more consistent strikes. This Pitching Ninja overlay of the two offerings illustrates how they work in concert:
Edward Cabrera, 98mph Fastball and 95mph Changeup, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/kWmyP8yAGe— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 2, 2022
See that freeze frame where both balls are in the same place before exploding out of the tunnel and ending in two different directions? Batters have no chance with that. His changeup on the outskirts of the zone sets up a fastball within the zone perfectly. Sit fastball and you’ll chase changeups; sit changeup and you’ll be trying to catch up to 98 at the shoulders.
It’ll be interesting to watch what Cabrera’s pitch mix looks like next season. He should still be using lots of changeups. However, there’s a fine line between trusting your top pitch and becoming overly reliant on it. The league will identify any obvious patterns and adjust accordingly. You shouldn’t be shocked if Cabrera takes another leap forward to establish himself as a great MLB starting pitcher.