In Tuesday’s win over the White Sox, Kelvin Herrera came in to finish the seventh inning and stayed in for the eighth. The first batter he faced was Alexei Ramirez. Herrera opened up with three 99 mph fastballs before unleashing his best pitch – after a foul ball he threw an 86 mph changeup that tumbled down and in for a swinging strikeout.
Herrera rocketed through the Royals system last year as a 21-year-old, opening in High A and finishing as a September callup. He pitched well this spring and earned a spot in the bullpen. Since, he’s put up 58 innings, with a 2.64 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He’s struck out 56 batters while walking just 12.
A big part of that is that he’s armed with a fastball that averages 97 mph which is difficult to catch up to for even the best hitters, but his changeup is what really stands out.
You can see that in the video below at the 22 second mark where the ball falls away from John Jaso and he catches it on the end of the bat, shattering the barrel:
According to TexasLeaguers.com, Herrera throws the changeup 21.8% of the time and gets it over for a strike almost 75% of the time. Moreover, it results in a swing and a miss more than a quarter of the time. In those moments when the batter does make contact, it turns into a ground ball an astounding 78.6% of the time.
He throws the pitch at nearly the same rate to right-handed batters (21%) as he does left-handed batters (25.8%), and it settles in the same area of the strike zone with regularity. It dives down and in on righties and floats away from lefties. As a result, his splits look even, with neither handed batter being able to do much against him at all. That helps his value as a pitcher since he can be trusted to face the left-handed batters when necessary.
So this pitch 1) has a stark speed differential from his big fastball 2) has a lot of movement and is hard to hit and 3) when it is hit, it’s often hit on the ground.
That’s a winning recipe.
The numbers suggest that not only is Herrera’s changeup effective – it’d be hard to argue that it wasn’t just by watching film alone – but it’s the fifth most valuable changeup in baseball among pitchers with 50 IP or more and one of the most valuable overall. Batters have a .369 OPS when he’s thrown the changeup.
He’s willing to throw it in nearly any count, though it’s frequently used with two strikes and hardly used for the first pitch of an at bat. What’s interesting is that he’s comfortable throwing the changeup in the middle of a count with two balls and while he’s thrown the change in three ball counts just 11 times total all season, nine of those were in full counts. How’d you like to be that batter, geared up for triple digit heat in a full count and have to adjust to the 86 mph change that falls off the table? Can’t imagine that’s a lot of fun at all. Half of his strikeouts have been on changeups, even though he throws them less frequently than the fastball with two strikes.
Herrera primarily relies on fastballs and changeups to get through his innings, only throwing a curve about 8% of the time. As a reliever, that’s okay because both pitches are so strong he can use them regularly in shorter outings. So far this year, he’s faced more than nine batters one time when he faced 10 Pirates, so he isn’t getting through a lineup more than once. I bring this up because there are calls to make Herrera a starter some time in the future. His stuff warrants the question, though there are concerns.
He missed large chunks of time in the minors due to injury (he appeared in 9 games combined in 2009 and 2010) which bring his durability in a rotation into question. Once moved into the bullpen full time starting last year, he took off. He turns 23 on the last day of 2012, though, so the Royals could take a look if they wanted to – though it’s probably best to take what he can do now at maximum effort and wield it when necessary as a traditional fireman of sorts. With Greg Holland assuming the closer’s role, Herrera’s ability to get strikeouts and ground balls makes him an ideal candidate out of the bullpen to come in during a jam. He doesn’t walk many at all either. He has more value as a starter, but if he gets hurt and ends up being ineffective, what value is there in that?
No matter what his role ultimately turns out to be, Herrera’s changeup will continue to wreak havoc on American League batters.
*(All pitch selection numbers are based off of the figures on TexasLeaguers.com as of 11 p.m. August 7.)