The Indians and the Blue Jays had something in common on Opening Day. While both staffs feature a number of promising arms, each of their Opening Day starters hadn't thrown a pitch in the majors since 2008. Jake Westbrook, understandably, struggled during his start four Cleveland. In four innings of work he threw 82 pitches and just 47 for strikes. That led to four walks. Combined with five hits, including a two-run home run by White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, and Westbrook surrendered five runs in his return. For Shaun Marcum, however, it was a different story.
Marcum has never been an overpowering pitcher. His fastball tops out at 88 mph, and over his career he has relied on his secondary pitches to keep hitters off-balance. He features a full arsenal, including a cutter, changeup, slider, and curveball, which allows him to throw his fastball only 40 percent of the time. While his cut fastball grades well, Marcum's favored secondary pitch is his changeup. It averages around 81 mph, giving it only five to six mph separation from his fastball, but it is his most effective weapon.
The changeup played a large part in Marcum's Opening Day no-hit bid. He deployed it liberally, throwing it 29 times out of 92 pitches, according to Pitch F/X. While Marcum has favored the changeup in the past, he hasn't typically thrown it this frequently, usually using it about 20 percent of the time. Then again, it was incredibly effective during this start. Only eight times did the umpire call his changeup a ball. The Rangers swung and missed at it 11 times, including four to end at-bats, accounting for two-thirds of Marcum's strikeout total for the day.
To measure the break of a pitch, the Pitch F/X system compares it with a pitch that has no spin. If a pitch had no spin, gravity would act on it to a greater degree than it would a pitch with backspin, so a pitch with no spin would drop faster. Because of this, many pitches have a positive vertical break. This doesn't mean that the pitch broke upward, but rather that it didn't drop as quickly as a pitch with no spin. A fastball with 10 inches of vertical break, for instance, stayed 10 inches higher than the same pitch if it had no spin.
The effectiveness of Marcum's change comes not from its separation from his fastball, but from its movement. His four-seam fastball has a vertical break of around 10 to 11 inches. His changeup has a vertical break of around 5 inches, so while a pitch with no spin would drop more, the changeup drops considerably more than the fastball. The movement keeps hitters off-balance, as they oftentimes think they see fastball, only to have the ball drop under their swings.
For the past seven seasons Blue Jays fans got to see Roy Halladay, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball over that span, start on Opening Day. Seeing Marcum, over a year removed from meaningful baseball, might have been a disappointment at first, but he certainly gave them something to cheer for. It was a disappointment to see Vladimir Guerrero single with one out in the seventh inning to break up the no-hit bid, and then to see Nelson Cruz hit a home run to tie a game the Jays would eventually lose. But Marcum certainly gave Jays fans something to look forward to. He, and his changeup, could lead the Jays to a few unexpected wins in the 2010 season.
Joe Pawlikowski is an author of FanGraphs.