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Justus Sheffield’s changeup is getting the work it needs

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Working out the kinks in games is a necessary challenge for the 23-year-old.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

There are, with few exceptions, no two-pitch starters. The challenge of facing a MLB lineup three or more times without much variation in offering is too daunting, the opponents too talented. It’s what makes scouts look at Justus Sheffield and see a future reliever, using his fastball-slider combo to excellent but condensed effect. Good relievers are important, of course, but pitchers who can capably handle 5+ innings will always provide their team more flexibility than those that go 1-2. Naturally then, the Mariners want Justus Sheffield to be a starter. If their top-heavy rapid rebuild is to be successful, they likely NEED Justus Sheffield to be a starter. For that, Justus Sheffield needs his changeup.

I recapped Sheffield’s outing on Sunday and noted how sharp he looked for four innings, an outing only partially negated by his fifth. Sheffield’s bread and butter sequence appeared in some form a few times against the White Sox, none better than in the 2nd inning against Eloy Jiménez. Sheff starts the young slugger off with a fastball low and out, right on the corner.

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For the first four innings, Sheffield was hitting that spot any time he wanted. It was the keystone for his success. By itself, it’s not a great pitch to hit, sinking away from a righty but still catching enough plate for a strike. But because Sheffield was consistently releasing his pitches together, his slider could start near the same location and end up near a RHHs back knee - the coup de grace for most of his strikeouts on the day. But to get there, Sheff needed a second strike, ideally without showing the slider or doubling up the same fastball. The changeup built a bridge.

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This isn’t a great pitch, but it’s an alright one. Pitchers like Andrew Moore or Ariel Miranda can’t get away with just an alright changeup because their other pitches don’t have exceptional properties, but this is alright. It’s 87 mph after 92 the pitch before. The sink is late but decent. It’s just a couple inches lower, and while it’s closer to the middle of the plate it fools Jiménez enough to get a weak foul ball. On pitch three, they try to go up.

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It’s a miss, and a fairly uncompetitive one, but because of how well he’s thrown the previous two pitches, he’s still in good shape. Now, having shown the fastball at two levels and the changeup, he goes for the haymaker.

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I could watch that pitch for hours. I have watched that pitch for hours. It’s the pitch that made Sheffield a Top-50 prospect by the time he was 22. But to make the most of that gleaming epee, he needs both other daggers at their sharpest. For the most part, Sheffield’s fastball has looked like what it needs to be the past couple outings. The changeup, in its increasing usage, has wavered around the pitch we’ve seen above - nothing revolutionary, but present.

Sheff’s cooked up 60 change pieces this season, all to righty hitters. He’s gotten whiffs on 13.3% of them in total, and whiffs one-third of the time the batter has swung. His wipeout slider is enough to frustrate most lefties, so for now keeping righties on their toes is understandably the priority. The properties are encouraging in spite of a mere five-mph gap between his average fastball and changeup. It’s mostly a sinking pitch, with a vertical break about an inch and a half better than comparably fast changeups league-wide. Unlike his four-seam, there’s nothing staggering in the spin profile of the pitch, though it does spin at a below-average rate for its velocity as well.

In Spring Training, Sheffield spoke of “making that third pitch a strikeout pitch — not just a weak-contact pitch.” So far, it seems like Sheffield’s made positive strides, though it may take another full year of comfortable use to fully integrate and refine things. The rosy angle would be to point to the success Félix Hernández has had with his firm change. The thorny counter is that there’s a reason Félix is the comparison folks jump to whenever a changeup is too fast - he is utterly unique in his exceptionalism.

Still, there are players with similar pitch profiles who we can look to for reference. With a 92-93 mph fastball (mixing a four-seam and sinker) and an 87-88 mph changeup, Red Sox LHP Eduardo Rodriguez is one of the most compelling facsimiles of Sheffield in the bigs right now. In lieu of a dynamite slider, Rodriguez uses a cutter, slider, and curveball, but his bread-and-butter is fire and ice. It’s a fairly familiar look on the fastball...

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as well as the changeup:

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If Sheffield can trend toward the type of player Rodríguez has become, it would be an excellent outcome for the lefty. Refining both his command and feel for the changeup, continuing to work it in the lower, outer third of the plate and off, will help him get the gorgeous whiffs on the sliders, as well as weaker contact on his fastball. Continuing to refine the pitch will be the focus for him over the offseason, and likely a core benchmark for measuring Seattle’s player development. To get to that place there will be some bad changeups thrown that get hit a ways, but seeing him emphasize the pitch in his final chances against MLB competition this season is encouraging process.

Though he’s long been in the spotlight for his lofty prospect profile, Sheffield is still nearly two years younger than James Paxton was when he debuted in 2013. Learning on the job now will hopefully yield trust and consistency that keeps him cooking in the rotation years down the line. That means refining his release points from decently lined up to an even tighter tunneling window, adding comfort in his command while also reaching back for added velocity, and utilizing all three pitches while behind in the count. It’s a lengthy to-do list, but it starts with the changeup, and Sheffield seems to know it.