They call it The Equalizer.
The changeup is a pitch that has come to be the difference-maker for so many pitchers in an era when the strike zone is often too tight for breaking balls and the hitters often too quick for fastballs.
"It's the mighty equalizer," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "Today's hitting, the way it's going, everybody is really trying to stay off everything but the fastball. More and more guys are aren't going to get off the fastball in an at-bat. The changeup is the one pitch we have that spins like a fastball and looks like a fastball."
Rays first baseman Carlos Peña simply shakes his head when he thinks about some of the nasty changeups he sees these days: "The changeup really is the equalizer. You don't want to be late on the high speed and you don't want to look bad on the changeup. Look at that split-minded focus. ... What a pitch. It's really a weapon."
The trendy pitch of the 21st century may be the cut fastball, but the changeup is like the old friend still waiting to get his due. There is nothing sexy or eye-popping about it. Kids certainly don't grow up throwing changeups at the wall in the backyard.
Frankly, at most levels of baseball, a good changeup isn't necessary. In the majors, though, it is vital.
"If you line up six A-ball players, they all have good arms and good breaking balls," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But when it comes time to throw an offspeed pitch for a strike, the breaking ball is almost impossible to throw for a strike. ... The strike zone is so physically small that if you get into a 2-0 or 3-1 count and you are a fastball-curveball guy and you don't trust your changeup, you are dead."
A National League scout said: "I've always thought the changeup is an undervalued pitch. A lot of young pitchers don't recognize its value."
The changeup is the pitch that turned Tim Lincecum from a promising prospect with a good fastball and a big breaking ball into a two-time Cy Young winner.
It is the pitch that helped Mark Buehrle and Dallas Braden, a couple of late-round draft picks without overpowering fastballs, to history-making perfection in the big leagues.
It is the pitch that has allowed Jamie Moyer to spend a quarter-century in the majors, even though he seemed to be washed up when the first George Bush was president.
It is the pitch that is going to deliver Tom Glavine and Johan Santana into the Hall of Fame.
"If you look here in the last generation of pitchers that succeeded, the one thing they really have in common is they have a changeup," said Maddux, whose brother Greg featured a nasty change to go with all his other weapons.
The changeup isn't new. It is any pitch thrown with the same rotation and wrist angle as a fastball, but without the velocity. Movement is a bonus. Good location is nice, but even that's not always necessary. The deception is what makes it a good weapon. As long as the hitter sees fastball until the ball is on its way, he'll have trouble making good contact.
Simple theory. The execution is a bit more complex.
A standard changeup is thrown with the index finger and the thumb forming a circle on the inside of the ball, while the pitcher pushes the ball out of his hands with the other three fingers. That's where a changeup starts, but there are plenty of modifications.
Lincecum throws his with the ball jammed back between his index and middle fingers. Tampa Bay's James Shields, who also has one of the best changeups in the game, throws his with his thumb and pinkie finger on the sides of the ball, pushing it with the middle three fingers. Splitters, forkballs, palmballs, the fosh and the vulcan are all just different flavors of the changeup.
"There are so many variations," Maddux said. "You just have to keep your arm speed up and throw it soft. You toy with different grips that allow the person to do that."
Changing a Career
FanGraphs.com ranks the most valuable changeups in baseball by comparing the run value in a situation before and after a particular pitch is thrown. Pitches thrown with more frequency will have higher values. Totals below are through Tuesday. To read more, visit FanGraphs.
|Shaun Marcum||Blue Jays||8.8|
|Freddy Garcia||White Sox||6.1|
|John Danks||White Sox||4.9|
"My velocity was sub-par, but I found if you can subtract from whatever your velocity is, you can create a back-and-forth that guys have a real hard time adjusting to," Braden said.
Braden's basic grip is a circle change, but years of experimenting have taught him that he can make the ball do all sorts of things, depending on slightly different finger positions and pressure points. He has a changeup that drops, one that runs in, one that runs away and one that stays on the same plane.
He continues to refine his changeup repertoire every day.
"I probably throw 15 to 25 changeups every single day, just playing catch before I even get on the mound to throw a bullpen," he said. "It's just a feel pitch and I understand that. I want to feel that like I feel my face when I wake up in the morning, like I know it's there. That pitch has got to be there for me."
It's not a stretch to say that Braden, a 24th-round draft pick, would not be in the big leagues if he hadn't mastered the changeup.
Shields is another pitcher whose changeup got him to the majors. He was a 16th-round pick in 2000. In 2002, when he was rehabbing from back surgery and trying to figure out new ways to get outs, he began experimenting with the changeup. After some trial and error to find the right grip, Shields came up with the pitch he uses today, which Hickey called a "plus plus" pitch.
"Shields certainly has enough fastball, but if it wasn't for his changeup, he'd probably still be toiling in the minor leagues somewhere," Hickey said.
Buehrle was a 38th-round pick in 1998. The lefty could not light up a radar gun, but his changeup helped him rocket to the big leagues after just 36 games in the minors.
Buehrle is now a four-time All-Star who has pitched two no-hitters, including a perfect game.
For evidence that it's never too late for a pitcher with stuff that's a little short to get a boost from a good changeup, consider Carlos Silva. The Cubs' right-hander was a high-priced bust in Seattle. Now in Chicago, Silva is 4-0 with a 3.40 ERA. According to FanGraphs, he's thrown his changeup more than 30 percent of the time this year, after throwing it 11 percent of the time last year. The changeup has helped Silva become much more effective against lefties, who had hit .380 against him last year.
Silva said he learned the changeup from Santana when they were teammates in Minnesota in 2007. That's the last year he threw it a high rate, and also the last year he was remotely effective.
Put a changeup in the hands of a pitcher who already has plus stuff, and you get more than just a quality starter. You get a dominating pitcher.
Because Lincecum won Cy Youngs in his first two full big-league seasons, it's easy to forget 2007, when he was first placed in the Giants' rotation. Lincecum admits he did not have a worthwhile changeup. He did have a 95 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curveball, but that combination was only good enough for him to have a 7-5 record and a 4.00 ERA. His potential showed, but he was inconsistent.
"He had the real big curveball and a moving fastball, but the big problem with those is they are foul-off pitches or swing-and-miss pitches, and the problem with both is they add up to another pitch," pitching coach Dave Righetti said.
The next spring, Lincecum started fiddling around with a changeup. He experimented with different grips until he came up with one that provided just the right deception. He needed hitters to see fastball until the ball was already on its way. Lincecum's changeup works because he sells it with his normal whippy arm action.
"It kind of opened up everything for me," Lincecum said. "It was the one pitch I needed to develop to offset the rest of my pitches. It's also one of those pitches that makes your other pitches better."
Righetti said Lincecum's changeup "was an integral part" of his Cy Young success. "Right now, it's without a doubt his strength."
Lincecum's fastball is now more often in the 91-92 mph range, instead of the 94-95 mph it was during his rookie season, but it doesn't matter. He's thrown more and more changeups each season. So far this season he's thrown his changeup almost 25 percent of the time. FanGraphs, which calculates the value of a pitch by its effectiveness and frequency, rates Lincecum's as the most valuable changeup in baseball.
"That's his go-to pitch," said the Padres' Adrian Gonzalez. "The other pitches are more to just keep you away. At the end of the day, it's one of the best pitches in the game."
Another NL West pitcher who may be following the Lincecum recipe -- nasty stuff with an improved changeup -- is Ubaldo Jimenez, who is known for his 97 mph fastball. But his game has gone to a new level since the middle of last season, and it's probably no coincidence that he's throwing his changeup, which is actually a splitter, nearly twice as often as he has in any prior season.
Jimenez's changeup has given him the extra option that every pitcher needs when he falls behind in the count. During Jimenez's first two full big-league seasons, 2008 and '09, opponents hit .300 against him when he was behind in the count. This year, they are hitting .196.
"That's just confidence and maturity and learning how to pitch," Gonzalez said. "It's the same thing as Lincecum from '07."
Chad Billingsley is the counterexample. Billingsley is considered one of the most underachieving talented young pitchers in baseball. Billingsley does not have an effective changeup. The result is that he can still be effective when he's ahead in the count, but not when he falls behind. Even during his nightmarish 2009 season, opponents hit only .184 against Billingsley after he got ahead 0-1. The problem was they hit .291 after the count was 1-0. So far this year, the split is .219/.315. The major league average is .225/.271.
All of this should be kept in mind before anyone starts planning on Stephen Strasburg dominating immediately in the big leagues. Strasburg's fastball and breaking ball are off the charts, but as recently as a month ago, FanHouse's baseball analyst Frankie Piliere said that Strasburg's changeup still needed work. If Strasburg follows the path of Lincecum, who breezed through college and the minors with a fastball and a breaking ball, he'll need to develop his changeup to take the next step.
The Last Piece
Whenever you hear about a talented young pitcher with good stuff who needs to "learn how to pitch," that is often code for "needs to learn a changeup." It is no surprise that a changeup is often the last pitch to develop, because it's often not needed by pitchers who are amateurs, or even in the low levels of the minors.
"Kids, when they are younger, they want to throw hard and throw a big curveball," said the Rangers' Rich Harden, who has made a career out of nothing but a fastball and two types of changeups. "That's what everybody wants to do. When I talk to kids, I tell them [the changeup] is one of the best pitches you can throw. I wish I would have started throwing it when I was younger."
A's scouting director Eric Kubota, who has been watching baseball's best amateurs for more than 20 years, said that high school pitchers rarely have changeups, but the top college pitchers usually have at least a working start to one.
"Kids have changeups, but they mostly benefit from pro instruction when it comes to the changeup," Kubota said. "The continued development of that pitch is a key for most kids to become successful big-leaguers. It's an important pitch in the big leagues. That's for sure."
Hickey said as recently as his days as the Astros pitching coach, from 2004-06, he saw pitchers reach the big leagues without a grasp of a changeup, which, he said, "is not something that should be happening."
"A lot of guys don't develop it until they get into professional baseball, and late into professional baseball, if not as late as the major leagues, which I think is totally contrary to what should be," Hickey said. "This is a philosophy we're embracing as an organization."
Hickey's staff throws the highest percentage of changeups in the majors, although that's mostly because of Shields. The Rangers, A's and Yankees are among the other organizations that have emphasized the changeup from the lowest levels of the minors up to the big leagues.
As recently as 10 years ago, the changeup was thought to be a weapon that pitchers could only use against opposite-handed hitters (right-handed pitchers to left-handed batters, and vice versa). The thinking was that a right-hander's changeup to a right-handed hitter would break toward the hitter's wheelhouse.
However, Moyer started to change that perception during his days in Seattle. Clubs stacked their lineups with left-handed hitters to take away Moyer's changeup, his best pitch, but Moyer wouldn't relent. He threw it anyway. He'd start it outside and let it drift back over the edge of the plate, getting hitters to tap it off the end of the bat. Or he'd start it in and have hitters so far out in front that they could only yank it foul.
Greg Maddux also threw his breaking ball much less later in his career, instead throwing just fastballs and changeups, to righties and lefties, Righetti said.
"When people have success doing something, other people mimic it," Hickey said. "Hitters are so good and the strike zone is so small, the ballparks are so small overall, that you have to continue to invent ways to get them out."
Gonzalez, one of the best left-handed hitters in the game, said he's seen a difference since he reached the big leagues in 2004.
"When I first came up, I just saw fastballs and sliders," Gonzalez said. "Now pitchers are mixing it up and doing different things."
Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said that the changeup and the cutter "have been emphasized more. Those are probably the two pitches that are being taught right now."
Texas' Michael Young said there still aren't as many changeup specialists as there should be, considering how tough the pitch is on hitters.
"For a while the sinker was a trendy pitch, now the cut fastball is a trendy pitch," he said. "I never understood why guys don't work on changeups more often. I think it can be such an effective weapon."
Aaron Rowand qualifies as a changeup expert. The center fielder started his career with the White Sox, then played with the Phillies and now plays for the Giants, meaning he's stood behind three of the best changeup artists in the big leagues: Buehrle, Cole Hamels and Lincecum. He's also Shields' cousin. As a former AL Central player, he said he has "had the pleasure of having about 50 at-bats off Santana."
Rowand knows a good changeup when he sees one. Frankly, he prefers not to see them at all.
"When the ball comes out of the pitcher's hand looking like a fastball and the bottom drops out, it's one of the toughest pitches to recognize and put a good swing on," he said. "When it comes out of his hand, you are like 'Fastball!' but it dies on you. It's the great equalizer."