Senza's secondary stuff could be key in 2021

Rockies right-hander looking to rely on changeup, build off success

February 27th, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-hander entered last year with enough confidence to predict success. Now, he has confidence and, based on 2020, a track record.

Last season, Senzatela melded improved secondary pitches with a fastball he has always used in the Majors and went 5-3 with a 3.44 ERA in 12 starts. Senzatela’s 153 ERA+ led the Rockies’ staff -- one that also received strong seasons from Germán Márquez and Kyle Freeland.

“Next for me is to maintain what I did last year,” said Senzatela, who threw Colorado's only complete game last season. “I'm getting better with my pitches. I’m getting more confidence. I’m getting deeper into games. I put my mind to this year. I’ve got to throw a lot of innings, help my team to win, keep my body [healthy], keep working hard.”

Senzatela, 26, struggled to a 6.71 ERA in 124 2/3 innings in 2019, as hitters caught up with the four-seam fastball that worked for him his first two seasons (when he went 16-11 with a 4.56 ERA in 225 innings).

A curveball that Senzatela had finally grown the confidence to use in games in late 2019, and a slider that he improved last year by taking readings from the Rockies’ analytics team were the difference. Senzatela remained focused on forcing soft contact rather than striking hitters out. And by trimming walks (9.8 percent walk rate in 2019, to 5.9 percent in '20), Senzatela reduced base traffic dramatically.

“His secondary pitches -- they really turned the corner as far as effectiveness and his confidence to throw them in all counts, the curve and the slider,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “The slider more than anything of his secondary pitches showed the most improvement. And his overall pitch ability improved.

“Didn’t he look in control? Confident. He’s always had that. He competes like crazy.”

Senzatela believes another secondary pitch, a changeup, could baffle hitters in 2021.

Starting with his 2012 debut in the Dominican Summer League, Senzatela, who was signed out of Valencia, Venezuela, displayed a changeup that baffled hitters in the Minors. But when he reached the Majors, he felt so good about his fastball he threw it more than 70 percent of the time -- and hitters read his changeup so effectively that he pocketed it.

Senzatela hoped to bring it back in 2019, but without warning, the pitch began causing discomfort on a trail from his right ring finger to the elbow. An adjusted drop didn’t work.

The pitch came back last season, and Senzatela expects to use it with vengeance this year.

While hitters didn’t do much better against Senzatela's changeup (.222 batting average) than his curveball (.217) in 2020, Statcast readings suggest they should have. Based on quality of contact, the pitch had an expected batting average against of .275 and an expected slugging percentage of .504.

However, other stats say the pitch is a good one from Senzatela's hand to the plate. MLB Quality of Pitch readings, which rate factors tied to location and movement rather than what happens after the bat is swung, revealed that Senzatela’s changeup went from the bottom 36 percent among pitchers to the top 18 percent.

If the pitch’s results and underlying data fall in line with what the pitch does out of his hand, Senzatela’s changeup could be even more effective. Knowledge and execution are key.

“It’s location,” Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said. “It’s knowing when to use the pitch. It’s consistency, doubling up -- being unpredictable.”

While last year’s results give the nod to the curveball and slider, Senzatela places the changeup on a higher pedestal.

“Year by year, I’ve tried to find the grip and the confidence that I had in the Minors, and I got my changeup back,” said Senzatela, who avoided arbitration this winter with a one-year, $3 million agreement. “I felt, 'OK this is the pitch I want to throw now. I can throw it anytime, no matter who is hitting.’ I feel really good about it.”

Last season showed that when Senzatela feels that way, corresponding results are possible.