We write about the fluidity of pitch selection often. There is no one approach capable of solving every batter of every lineup of every start. Identifying and reacting to situations is necessary, and is an arena where pitchers, catchers, and pitching coaches can separate themselves from the pack. Sometimes, altering a game plan means getting away from a bread-and-butter pitch or sequence in order to keep the opponents off-balance.
James Shields and Alex Cobb have done just that through the first two games of the Rays series with the Yankees. It’s hard to find a pair of rotation mates more dependent on the changeup than Shields and Cobb. That factoid makes it hard to label their altered approaches in this series a coincidence. Both have cut down on the amount of two-strike changeups thrown all the while pitching to different catchers. It’s enough to make you think the Rays have either instructed or, at the very least, strongly hinted to take a different path against the New York lineup.
Shields, who started on Monday night, typically uses his changeup close to half of the time in two-strike counts. Presently, his seasonal rate is at 47 percent, with another 44 percent allocated to fastballs—four- and two-seamers, as well as cutters. Last night, however, Shields went to his changeup just 22 percent of the time. He made up for the missing changeups by throwing 66 percent fastballs. Of Shields’ five strikeouts, four came on fastballs—three via an empty swing.
Cobb entered his Tuesday start throwing fastballs on 42 percent of his two-strike counts. His split-change accounted for another 47 percent, with his curve filling in the gaps. Cobb still went to his fastball a fair amount of the time against the Yankees (about 46 percent of the time). His curveball, which usually takes a backseat to his changeup, became the secondary pitch of choice, as he tossed it 29 percent of the time. Three of Cobb’s five strikeouts came on fastballs, with two of the looking variety. Another came on a curveball.
Cobb still used 25 percent changeups, more than Shields, but both were well below their seasonal norms. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe the Rays planned on giving the Yankees—generally a disciplined group—another look from their changeup masters. Either way, the Rays have to like the results.