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What in The World Is Going on With Andy Sonnanstine's Breaking Pitches?

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Remember the quotes from Andy Sonnanstine about a new change-up he worked on during the spring? Generally, you hear pitchers talking about a new grip, arm slot, or even an entirely new pitch and nothing ever really comes of it. This is their way of acting busy. Well, Sonnanstine's change-up has actually morphed from last previous seasons, but I'm not sure if it's for the best.

The velocity on the pitch is a tick higher than previous incarnations. We're talking about an extra mile per hour, nothing overly substantial. The pitch is moving less horizontally than it did last season though. In 2007 the pitch broke about six inches in to right-handed batters, in 2008 that number increased to seven inches, now he's getting less than five inches of inward break. Vertically, the pitch has reverted to its 2007 roots, just around four inches "up", compared to nearly 7 inches in 2008.

Compared to Rays contemporaries Joe Nelson and James Shields, we can fill in the dots on how ‘good' his change-up moves.

 

Pitcher H V
Nelson -8.3 4.7
Shields -8.8 3.8
Sonny -4.6 4.1

Sonny's change is right there vertically, but lacks the horizontal oomph that makes Nelson and Shields' change-ups so good. You could also question whether Sonnanstine has enough separation between his fastball/cutter and change-up. Shields sits around 90 with the heater and 82 with his change while Nelson sits 88 with his fastball and 79 with his change. That's about 8-9 miles per hour of separation each. With Sonnanstine, it's more like 3-4 nowadays.

For someone without inherent control issues, getting less movement seems like a bad thing.

 

Interestingly, Sonny's curveball has gained way more movement than his change-up has lost. Last year it sat at 7.9 inches horizontally (which is to say away form righties) and -2.2 vertically (a drop), this year it's at 10.1 and -6.2. That's more horizontal movement than Josh Beckett's curve, and an equal amount of vertical drop. Of course, Beckett has a mid-90s heater setting his pitch up so the two situations aren't entirely comparable.

So here we have Sonnanstine, the guy about 32 walks away from last year's total in 100 less innings, and we have evidence that his change-up is breaking less and his curve is breaking more. Still, Sonnanstine's pitches are finding the zone at a 59% rate - higher than last year - and he's getting 61% first-pitch strikes - down from last year. Perhaps the most telling part is that his O-Swing% is down to 12%, about half of his career total.

Piecing this together, there's a few possible explanations.

Sonnanstine has no idea his curve is breaking more and change is breaking less, and he's trying to throw them like he did previously.  

The ‘break' is coming sooner as the ball is pitched, giving hitters a better look, and allowing them to lay off certain pitches.

It's all a small sample size mirage.

Let's see if this continues throughout his next few starts.