Home plate can't contain the 'airbender' pitch

July 4th, 2023

On Sunday, threw an ordinary-looking changeup ... at least, as far as his "airbenders" go.

It was only one pitch in the middle of a routine save against the Pirates, a first-pitch strike to Henry Davis on the bottom edge of the zone.

But that pitch is part of a very fun fact about the Brewers' newly named All-Star closer: It's one of only two changeups Williams has thrown all year that haven't moved the entire width of the plate.

Home plate is 17 inches wide. Williams' changeup to Davis broke "only" 15.5 inches horizontally. Yes, that is the smallest amount of break on an airbender this season.

Williams has thrown 264 changeups in 2023. Two hundred and sixty-two of them have had at least 17 full inches of horizontal break.

Pitches that break 17+ inches most often in 2023
Min. 100 pitches thrown of that type

  1. Devin Williams' changeup: 99.2% (262 of 264)
  2. Rich Hill's sweeper: 97.5% (117 of 120)
  3. Trevor Kelley's sinker: 92.7% (115 of 124)
  4. Aaron Loup's sinker: 91.7% (176 of 192)
  5. Luis Castillo's sinker: 91.6% (271 of 296)
  6. Jason Adam's sweeper: 90.1% (163 of 181)

You can define home plate by the airbender. Somewhere between where Williams' changeup starts and where it ends, the plate will tuck in nicely.

The changeups that are closest to Williams in this way are Orioles righty Yennier Cano's, which breaks 17-plus inches 77.5% of the time, and Mariners right-hander Luis Castillo's, which does so 76.1% of the time. But "three quarters of the time" and "over 99% of the time" are totally different.

Of course, Williams' airbender is a famously unique pitch, a rare high-spin changeup that often looks more like a screwball, or a sweeping lefty breaking ball thrown by a right-hander. There's no shortage of fun stats about it.

Williams doesn't need to track his changeup movement to know when it's on. That's more for the Brewers to do, in case the team needs to provide him some solid feedback from the data. But this is the fourth season of airbender nastiness. Williams can tell what's going on with his signature pitch.

"I don't really look at numbers. I can tell if it's good or not just by how it feels coming off my hand," Williams said during the Brewers' recent trip to New York -- when he saved three of the four games against the Mets and ended the series finale by striking out Starling Marte with the bases loaded on three straight changeups.

"I don't really know how to explain it. If I throw it and it's down and it's moving horizontally and vertically, I can just tell."

His changeup movement has to wreak havoc for a hitter. If Williams starts his changeup off the outside edge of the plate, it will end up on the inside edge. He can start it in the middle of the opposite batter's box and have it run back onto the corner. The airbender is the only changeup averaging over 20 inches of horizontal movement right now.

Changeups with most avg. horizontal break, 2023

  1. Devin Williams: 20.7 inches
  2. Jonathan Hernández: 19.3 inches
  3. Nick Lodolo: 18.8 inches
  4. (tie) Spencer Turnbull/Yimi García: 18.6 inches

Williams has 16 strikeouts this season on changeups with 20 or more inches of arm-side movement. That's quadruple any other pitcher on a single pitch type -- Kevin Gausman's splitter, Nick Lodolo's four-seam fastball and Brayan Bello's changeup have four such K's apiece.

Williams will actually tell you he cares more about the depth of the pitch than the run. But his changeup is getting strong vertical movement too. The drop on his changeup is 4.1 inches better than average, comparing his changeup to others thrown at similar velocity and release point. His horizontal break is 5.1 inches more than average. He's the only pitcher whose changeup movement is four-plus inches above average in both directions.

The airbender is so nasty that Williams can throw it as his No. 1 pitch, even as a changeup -- he's thrown over 50% changeups every season since he was a rookie. Hitters know that and enter the box against Williams looking for the airbender. They've found little success. Still, one way Williams has addressed that is by balancing his pitch mix more toward 50-50 from the career-high 64% changeups he threw in 2021. (He's at 55% changeups and 45% fastballs right now.)

"I was throwing it when I feel like I can," Williams said. "But everyone that I face now sits on my changeup.

"So why would I just throw changeups? Changeup, changeup -- it's literally in the name. It's called a changeup. You can't change up off of a changeup. If that's the only thing you're throwing, you're not changing anything, no matter how good it is."

Sitting on the changeup is a double-edged sword, with hitters more vulnerable to Williams' fastball than ever. Williams' changeup and four-seamer are generating identical 41.6% whiff rates this season. That's high for a changeup … and absurdly high for a fastball.

There's also a solution to hitters sitting on it within the changeup itself: Bend the airbender in different ways.

  • Williams has thrown it as hard as 87.8 mph this season (a game-ending strikeout of reigning batting champion Jeff McNeil last week) and as slow as 81.5 mph.
  • He's thrown it with as much as 27 inches of horizontal break (the McNeil K … yes, the airbender can move over two full feet) and as "little" as the 16 inches to Davis.
  • He's thrown with as little as 32 inches of drop (another big strikeout, vs. Reds star rookie Matt McLain, to end the game with the bases loaded on June 3), and as much as 48 inches of drop.

"I can shape it differently, just based off what I want to do," Williams said. "I don't want to show guys the same shape over and over again. So if I'm gonna throw it a lot, it's gonna have different shapes to it. Sometimes I want it to go more straight down, sometimes I want the one that's gonna run away from you. It just depends on what I feel like the situation calls for."