ANAHEIM — Jack Mayfield began and ended the season with the Angels in 2021, but in the middle the Angels let him go, and he had a brief stint with the Seattle Mariners. During that 11-game interlude, Mayfield faced Angels lefty Patrick Sandoval.
That gave him the chance to see Sandoval’s changeup. Sort of.
“I remember not seeing it,” Mayfield said with a smile.
Sandoval threw Mayfield four changeups in their two matchups. He swung and missed at all four, on his way to a pair of strikeouts. In those four swings, Mayfield experienced first-hand one of the main reasons that Sandoval, 25, has blossomed over the past two seasons.
Sandoval’s changeup is one of the best pitches in baseball.
This season, no pitcher in the majors has thrown any pitch more than Sandoval’s changeup without giving up a hit. He’s thrown it 118 times, and opponents are 0 for 30 with 20 strikeouts against the pitch.
Hitters have whiffed on 52.4% of their swings against Sandoval’s changeup. Since the start of last season, the 51.6% whiff rate on the Sandoval changeup is the second-highest for any pitch that has generated at least 200 swings. The only one higher is Jacob deGrom’s slider.
Sandoval also has a pretty good slider, one that has held opponents to a .143 batting average.
The combination of his changeup and slider is how he’s managed to post a 3.25 ERA since the start of last season, including a 2.03 mark through his first five starts of this season.
While he’s already taken a jump from the struggles of his big league stints in 2019 and 2020, the Angels believe he still has another step to take once he can learn to locate his fastball.
“You start throwing that fastball where you want, and I’ll be seeing you in the ninth inning,” Manager Joe Maddon often tells Sandoval.
In the meantime, he’s been successful mostly on the strength of a pitch that the Houston Astros both developed and wasted.
Coming out of Mission Viejo High, Sandoval said he always believed his curveball was his best pitch, even though his teammates had insisted it was the changeup. The Astros drafted Sandoval in the 11th round in 2015 and invested an over-slot $900,000 bonus to pry him away from a commitment to USC.
In one of his first camps with the Astros in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sandoval was introduced to a new drill.
Coaches placed a blue mat in front of him, and he would go through his motion with a changeup grip, slamming his hand into the mat. The idea was to reinforce the wrist position, so the circle formed by his thumb and index finger on the side of the baseball pointed directly at the catcher. He would hit the mat twice, and on the third time the mat would be pulled away and he’d release the ball.
For two weeks, Sandoval did that drill again and again.
“That really dialed it in for me,” Sandoval said.
Ironically, the Astros helped Sandoval improve his changeup, but then in games they only wanted him to throw it about 12-15% of the time. They emphasized four-seam fastballs up in the zone and curveballs, Sandoval said.
The Angels acquired Sandoval at the trade deadline in 2018, and immediately changed his pitch mix.
“In my first outing, the first couple innings I was throwing the changeup a lot and (the hitters) were nowhere near it,” Sandoval said. “They just kept calling it. I probably went from throwing 15% to like 35-40% when I got traded.”
Angels pitching coach Matt Wise was a roving minor league pitching coordinator when Sandoval arrived in 2018.
“I was standing behind him in the bullpen, and from that perspective, it looks like it’s going to the catcher and then literally hits the brakes,” Wise said. “It came out like a fastball. … I’d love to take credit, but he had it when he got here. It’s a wipeout changeup.”
Although Sandoval’s changeup leaves hitters flailing, the Angels have been unable to quantify what makes it so good. By the metrics, the horizontal and vertical break are both below average.
“The movement profile is pretty mediocre,” Sandoval said. “But I’ll take it. Guys aren’t hitting it.”
The velocity numbers aren’t even that special. His average fastball is 93.0 mph and his average changeup is 84.5 mph, which is a smaller gap than most pitchers with devastating changeups.
Wise said it’s all about what the hitter sees at the release point.
“The one area that no one in baseball can really quantify is deception,” Wise said. “We’ve looked at it. Other people have looked at it, metrically as well. With Hawkeye and Trackman. There’s nothing about it that says it should have that swing and miss rate.”
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Maddon said Sandoval disguises the changeup well by having the same arm speed that generates his fastball. The pitch not only looks like a fastball, but it also looks like a strike. By the time the hitter realizes it’s neither a fastball nor a strike, it’s too late.
Which brings us back to Mayfield.
He knew Sandoval had a good changeup before he stepped in the box, and he tried to adjust accordingly.
“I remember trying to sit on it, and you just have that little bit of doubt in your mind that it still could be a heater,” Mayfield said. “I was still early on the changeup. It’s definitely one of the better changeups I’ve ever seen.”
Angels (RHP Chase Silseth, 2-0, 1.73 ERA at Double-A) at A’s (RHP Daulton Jeffries, 1-5, 5.22), Friday, 6:40 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM