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Reviewing Chih-Wei Hu’s weird pitch selection

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That wasn’t the changeup artist we thought we knew.

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chih-Wei Hu pitched two and two thirds innings in the majors two days ago before being sent immediately back down to Triple-A on the Durham Shuttle. It was a quick appearance that left us asking the identity of that pitcher we just saw. Jokes that will never get old aside, this is a legitimate question.

Here’s what Hu threw. You can get an interactive version here if you want to click the filters to better visualize the speed differneces of individual pitches, but I’ll walk you through what I think is interesting.

First off, that’s a lot of sliders. Hu is a slider-heavy pitcher? Not last we checked.

The Fangraphs review of the Rays system went live yesterday, and this is what it said about Hu:

Tampa Bay continues to run Hu out as a starter, and he has been remarkably durable throughout his career. But he may profile best as a kitchen-sink reliever because the fastball doesn’t really play in the zone despite its velocity and because, other than the changeup, the secondaries, though many, are vanilla.

Their grades for his pitches on the 20-80 scale were (present value/future value):

  • Fastball: 50/50
  • Curveball: 45/45
  • Changeup: 60/60
  • Splitter: 45/45
  • Cutter: 50/55

So, uh, what were all those things I’m calling sliders (and Brooks Baseball is too, so feel free to check it out using their tools)?

I assume that’s what Eric Longenhagen and the Fangraphs team called his 50/55 cutter. It got up near 90 mph, which is cutter speed.

More important than what to call it, is the question of whether or not it’s good.

Chatting about the pitch while watching live, Bradley Neveu and I were both struck by how variable the movement looked. Sometimes it seemed to go nowhere, and other times it really scooted horizontally. It made us wonder if Hu was throwing two distinct pitches with gloveside run.

But looking at the Statcast data, I don’t see that.

There’s no relationship between horizontal movement and speed, and honestly, the range in horizontal movement isn’t that large. What we perceived yesterday seems like a trick in the cameras, or something subtle about the movement playing differently to different parts of the zone. There is some relationship between vertical movement and speed, and this is something that plays up when the effects of gravity are factored in, but still, this looks like one pitch with inconsistent delivery, not two pitches.

What’s the intention? Is the 90 mph version or the 86 mph version the 55 scouting grade that Longenhagen sees Hu being able to develop? (I’d bet on 90 mph.)

Whither the Changeup (please, not a withered changeup)

Notably sparse was Chih-Wei Hu’s purported best pitch. We saw it plenty in 2017, so we know it exists, and we know it was good. But he only threw three yesterday. One of them was clobbered for a three-run home run.

I’m going to assume for now that his changeup was fine, that maybe he just didn’t have a feel on that day, or that maybe he’s been working a ton on his slider/cutter and wanted to give it a run in a real big-league game to see how good hitters reacted. I’m going to assume that this is not an Alex Colome Curveball situation, where a pitcher made hay in the minors throwing a highly-scouted pitch, and then just completely lost a feel for it by the time he reached the majors. I’m going to assume this because it would be a real shame the other way. With just that fastball and slider/cutter, it’s hard to see Hu’s path to being special. The changeup is the path.

We’ll see Hu again this season. The question is when, not if. But his first appearance in 2018 has introduced another question. I thought I knew who he was as a pitcher. Now I’m not so sure.