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Ask Coach Bagonzi

What are the differences in the change-ups and why are there so many? 

Change of Pace Pitching

The change-up or change of pace pitch has been part of baseball ever since the 1860’s when the game had evolved to the point that it was no longer considered ungentlemanly for a pitcher to fool the batter into missing. Ever since then, pitchers have continually sought to develop pitches that would destroy a hitter's timing. The games first master of deception was the diminutive Candy Cummings who developed the curve ball. No longer able to anticipate the fastball, hitter's had to develop the capacity to make split second decisions or be awfully good at guessing. The arms build-up continued from there with the pitcher constantly in quest of another way to bedevil the hitter's timing. Ultimately, the curve ball culminated into the slider, a pitch that's most effective when it initially looks and moves like a fastball.

Changing pace became absolutely essential in the 1920’s and 30’s as batters became more and more skilled at timing fastballs and started whacking them over the fences by the bushel. As is the case today, there has never been more than a handful of pitchers who could throw a ball with great enough velocity that hitters couldn't ever catch up with it. And even those pitchers have had greater success when they've included a change of pace in their repertoire. Perhaps the best fastball today is thrown by Pedro Martinez. Not only does he have great velocity but he also gets great movement. Yet, you ask, Martinez will tell you that his change-up is his best pitch. Perhaps he doesn't really believe what he is saying, but is only furthering the purpose of the change-up: to keep good hitters from sitting on the fastball.

Fans have always loved the change-up; they enjoy the notion of a powerful slugger lunging desperately at a pitch slow enough that any softball Joe could hit it. One of the most popular radio plays in 1946 was a story called The Day that Baseball Died. It featured a pitcher who developed the ultimate change-up. Not only did this pitch, the knuckle duster II, slow down on the way to the plate; it stopped altogether, hovering in the air for a few seconds before heading on. The result being that the batter swung and the umpire called it a strike, before it even reached the plate. A riot followed the duster's unveiling, as in the story it was used to record the final out of the seventh game of the World Series. The knuckle duster II was the ultimate change-up designed to totally throw off the batter's timing, especially a batter who, like in the story, expected a full count fastball. Much of the play, though a tall tale, had the ring of truth to it. For one it took the pitcher (played by Art Carney) six years to develop the pitch. Secondly. While being quite hitable, its strength relied on its capacity to fool the hitter and was reserved for crucial situations with good fastball hitters (in the story it was used against the leagues best hitter), and finally, it was a pitch that the pitcher had faith enough in to be effective.

Indeed, a good change-up is not something that a pitcher can develop overnight, but often takes years of work in the pitching lab to perfect. To get the necessary grip on the Knuckle Duster, the pitcher had to develop a grip so unusual it caused him to break his fingers half a dozen times. And while such an accommodation is very extreme, specific anatomical peculiarities are indeed factored into the quality of the change-up. However, instead of deforming ones hands, a pitcher instead will typically choose from the variety of change-ups available to find the one that works best with his own specific anatomy. This of course explains why there are so many different ways to grip a ball destined to be a change-up.

Before we go on and talk about the change-up, we should also recognize that a straight change-up isn't the only way to mess with a hitters timing. Consider the following two ways that pitchers have utilized changing pace to enhance their effectiveness.

  1. Taking something off. This is probably the hardest way to vary timing. It takes a true master to throw the ball a little less hard without having one's delivery tip off the batter. It also requires the pitcher to have an uncanny instinct for measuring velocity and confidence enough to do so. The late Catfish Hunter in his days of greatness with the A's and the Yankees probably best exemplified this method. El Duque of the Yankees is another one who toys with taking a little something off his fastball.
  2. Use of the breaking pitch to vary speeds. To keep hitters from timing his fastball, Randy Johnson relies on a slider and a once in a while splitter to keep them guessing.. While his slider doesn't have exceptional movement, the 5+ m.p.h. variance between his slider, and his ability to throw it for a strike, keeps the hitters from timing his fastball. Probably one of the most effective styles of pitching is to combine a great fastball with a big curve that drops off the table. Nobody ever used this combination more effectively than Sandy Koufax. He could bust you with a 95+ m.p.h. fastball and then throw you off stride with a curve that probably never topped 80. The fact that he eventually learned to get his curve to consistently intersect with the strike zone kept hitters from sitting on his fastball even when they were ahead in the count. A slow sinker or a screwball, among others, can also be used as a change of pace pitch. Even a knuckler or fork ball can be employed for this purpose.

FORKBALL

PALM BALL

KNUCKLEBALL

If you have a splitter or forkball or other pitch that just doesn't seem to be its own effective entity, get out of functional fixity mode and think whether it could be utilized effectively as a change of pace pitch -- not a staple to survive on, but something that can be utilized to throw off the timing of a good fastball hitter.

The Straight Change

The straight change is usually what people mean when they talk about a change-up. The straight change is thrown with fastball arm action and speed. The ball is slowed down due to resistance created by the grip. This can be accomplished by sitting the ball deeper in the hand or by applying greater finger pressure or using the fingers to create drag on the ball, or any combination of the three. Another method is to take the tips of the finger off the ball and grip it lower on the fingers.

THREE FINGER CHANGE

TIPS OFF CHANGE-UP

Typically the rule of thumb used to be that a pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball would use a four-seam grip for his change-up and the pitcher who threw primarily two-seam fastballs would use a two seam change-up. This isn't as true anymore as more hard throwers are relying on a two-seam change-up to get a little extra movement on the ball.

Certainly and for good reason the most popular change-up today is the okay or circle change for the very reason that it gets good action on the ball when thrown low. Mario Soto and Frank Viola were among the first to use the circle change effectively. The pitch also became Nolan Ryan's favorite change of pace pitch. And today it is certainly the most common change-up. Glavine and Maddux both employ it. And, as already mentioned, Pedro Martinez claims that his circle is his most effective pitch.

THE CIRCLE or OK CHANGE

Straight change-ups are perhaps the most difficult to master, but a pitcher does not become a true pitcher until he has one that is ready for prime time. In order for a straight change-up to be effective, the following considerations should be heeded.

  • While movement is not required for a change-up to be effective, that added dimension makes it a stronger pitch. You can get two-dimensional movement, you have a superior pitch, one that you can throw more often.
  • Change-ups out over the plate are dangerous at best. One should try to paint the black with the change-up or even throw it outside of the strike zone, especially it has some movement. The hitter is able to hold back on it, a pitcher wants to have the extra security of knowing that the batter won't be getting the fat of his bat on it.
  • The art form is making the pitch look like a fastball. Mechanics have to be identical to that of a fastball. And while the arm action will probably never be as fast as with a fastball, it cannot be allowed to show any drastic difference.
  • Most effective change-ups are low! In fact we're better off keeping the mind set that all effective change-ups are thrown low.

The ultimate change-up is one that the pitcher can throw with confidence when behind in the count, 2-0 or 3-1. Batters almost always look for the fastball here, and the pitcher can sometimes get himself out of trouble without extending himself.

It takes awhile to gain the confidence needed to throw change-ups under adverse conditions, but once the pitcher matures to this point he will generally enhance his effectiveness and extend his career. Pitchers who have trouble going beyond five innings often need a change-up to extend their patterns. They will take the time to develop a change of speed, they will be rewarded many times over.

 

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