A fool for you: Changeup an effective weapon

A fool for you: Changeup an effective weapon

A fool for you: Changeup an effective weapon
Dusty Baker might not have known the true power of a well-thrown changeup until he almost landed on the disabled list because of one.

It was in the early 1980s and Baker, an established slugger for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was in the batter's box against Cincinnati Reds right-hander -- and noted changeup artist -- Mario Soto.

Soto could dial up 92 mph with his fastball, but his changeup was a different animal -- an unforgiving animal. With tiny swords for teeth.

It looked like a fastball from the beginning of Soto's windup. Soto's sped-up arm action indicated it was a fastball. It came out of his hand with the rotation of a fastball.

It was not a fastball. It was an 82-mph changeup.

"Mario threw me one, and my whole left arm almost came out of the socket," Baker said. "The umpire said, 'Get in here and hit,' and I'm trying to put my arm back in the socket."

The "almighty equalizer"

The concept of the changeup is simple. Since many Major League pitchers reach the low, mid and upper 90s with fastballs, they will fool hitters who guess fastball and time their swings on a pitcher's release with softer stuff -- as long as the ball leaves the hand looking like a fastball.

Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, whose brother, Greg, had one of the best changeups in baseball history, said he has worked with all of the pitchers on the Texas staff to hone and implement a changeup, because he knows how valuable it can be.

"The changeup is the almighty equalizer," Mike Maddux said. "If you don't have velocity to beat guys, how do you make your fastball better? By being more effectively slow.

"So you first look at how they're wired. Some guys are wired to throw everything real hard, so you have to take a different grip. Some guys have touch and feel, so you can do something else. But the idea is that they're swinging at your arm. We have to get the arm speed up and let the grip do the work for us."

A lot of pitchers use a "circle" grip, which, in varying methods, has the pitcher making some form of a circle with his thumb and forefinger to cradle the ball in his hand while draping however many more fingers over the seams that it takes for him to feel comfortable and be able to throw it with the same arm action and same command.

"Whatever it takes," Maddux said. "It's all about taking the velocity off the ball while maintaining our arm speed. Some guys use two fingers. Some guys use three or four. There are Vulcan grips, the 'Fosh' ball, which is what Mike Boddicker used to call his, or whatever. Guys make up their own. Whatever works."

"It just floats"

You'd think it would be easy to hit a changeup if you knew it was coming, and you'd think it'd be even easier to hit a changeup if you knew it was coming and you used to catch the guy throwing it. Well, not so much.

White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski caught Johan Santana during the lefty's formative years in Minnesota and witnessed firsthand the evolution of what many considered the best changeup in the game until Santana, now with the Mets, popped a shoulder capsule that has had him on the disabled list since September.

"Santana's changeup was as good as I've seen," Pierzynski said. "[Brad] Radke helped him develop it. When we first got [Santana], he was more of a fastball-slider guy, and he kind of learned the changeup. It became probably the most devastating pitch there was in baseball. He could throw it to people, they knew it was coming and nobody could hit it.

"It's a shame he ended up getting hurt and missing all this time. He probably had a chance to be a Hall of Fame pitcher and one of the greatest ever."

When Pierzynski ended up in Chicago in 2005, he found himself having to face the man he caught during this transformation. He went 0-for-6 in 2005 and is 2-for-20 in his career against Santana.

"It doesn't really matter if you caught a guy," Pierzynski said. "Just because you know what a guy is going to throw, you still have to hit it. His stuff was good. On the White Sox, we had some games where we hit him good and never could seem to beat him. Then, we had games where we didn't hit him at all.

"If you face a good pitcher and they are on, it's going to be tough sledding no matter who's hitting or if you know what's coming."

"The changeup is the almighty equalizer. If you don't have velocity to beat guys, how do you make your fastball better? By being more effectively slow."

-- Rangers pitching coach
Mike Maddux

Brewers outfielder Corey Hart agreed, having recently taken what he called a "terrible swing" on a changeup by Padres reliever Luke Gregerson.

"You think it's a fastball," Hart said. "You think fastball and swing, and it's just not there. There are a lot of guys like that, who don't use it as much, but they have it almost as a 'finish' pitch. You see it and just miss it.

"A good changeup is one of the hardest pitches to hit. [Phillies lefty Cole] Hamels, half of the pitches he's throwing can be changeups and you still can't hit it. It's all about arm speed. He has such good arm speed that you see it coming out of his hand and think, 'fastball.' All of a sudden, it just floats."

Changing up a career

For Mariners lefty Jason Vargas, a regular circle changeup works, and it's a good thing he found it. Vargas threw a changeup at Apple Valley (Calif.) High School and at Long Beach State, but it wasn't a standout pitch for him then, and he turned to a slider as his preferred off-speed option when he entered the Florida organization in 2004.

Upon reaching the Major Leagues with the Marlins in 2005, Vargas said the differences in the tightness of the seams between balls used in the Minor Leagues and the Majors contributed to effectively "flattening out" his slider.

"I had to go to something else," Vargas said, "and I found a little present waiting for me."

His gift was a hitter's curse. Vargas' changeup, which reaches the plate at around 80 mph -- compared to his fastball, which tops out at 88-89 -- has led to a 3.78 ERA last year, a 3.86 ERA so far this season and an entrenched position in a big league rotation.

"I don't know if it's made my career, but it's definitely added to giving me some success," Vargas said. "I think being able to command my fastball is probably the biggest thing, but a changeup definitely helps."

Vargas isn't the only one it's helped.

Greg Maddux, for example, has said many times that he forgot that he had a good changeup until he was sent to the Minor Leagues in August 1987. He was 21 years old, languishing with the Cubs en route to a 6-14 record and a 5.61 ERA.

But while in Triple-A, he was reunited with pitching coach Dick Pole, who worked on his changeup in Iowa and in Venezuela over the winter.

Maddux began throwing the pitch more and more, and the following year, he went 18-8 with a 3.18 ERA, and you can read the rest of the story on a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., beginning in 2014.

Nolan Ryan didn't develop a changeup until 1981, when he was 15 years into his Hall of Fame career, but once he did, he prolonged his career another 12 seasons, cementing his Hall of Fame credentials.

"You think it's a fastball. You think fastball and swing, and it's just not there. There are a lot of guys like that, who don't use it as much, but they have it almost as a 'finish' pitch. You see it and just miss it. A good changeup is one of the hardest pitches to hit."

-- Brewers outfielder
Corey Hart

Jamie Moyer's baffling changeup, one that plays off a fastball that barely hits the low 80s in velocity, has made hitters slam bats against the ground after striking out. On May 7, 2010, at the age of 47, he became the oldest player in Major League history to throw a shutout.

And what about Trevor Hoffman? He was a college shortstop who couldn't hit in the Minors and couldn't throw great fastballs in the Majors after shoulder surgery robbed him of velocity in 1994 and '95. He learned the changeup, which was so good it earned the nickname of "Bugs Bunny" because of the cartoonish swings it would induce from hitters.

"You could swing at it three times, and it still wouldn't be in the mitt," former teammate Andy Ashby said in 2005. "I swear, he could tell them it's coming and they still couldn't hit it."

That point was illustrated in technicolor in 1998, when Hoffman struck out Pete Incaviglia to end Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Houston.

"He threw three straight changeups to him," former teammate Mark Sweeney said, "and I think Incaviglia swung at all three before it even came out of his hand."

The best in the business

But what about now? Hoffman retired after last season with 601 saves, a number that will likely put him somewhere on the wall in Cooperstown near Greg Maddux and Ryan and maybe even Moyer -- if the latter, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, ever retires.

Who are the best changeup artists in Major League Baseball in 2011?

Clicking through the FanGraphs.com statistical leader boards will lead you to "pitch type linear weights," which, according to FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron, "measure the results of each pitch type a pitcher throws and expresses the results in terms of runs saved."

For example, if a pitcher has a wFB of +10, his fastball has been 10 runs above average, and wFB/c is runs per 100 pitches thrown, so it's the same number but expressed as a rate stat.

"It's a pretty neat tool, but there are limitations," Cameron said. "A pitcher may have a great fastball and an OK breaking ball, but the fastball is the one that gets him into 0-2 counts and then he puts away the opposing hitter with the breaking ball, which will get more credit because it's the pitch that got the strikeout.

"Also, it's not defense-independent, so if a guy is throwing good pitches but his defense is playing badly behind him, he won't get credit for throwing a good pitch. Still, the leader boards generally reflect what you'd expect."

That means Mariano Rivera has a great cutter -- no news there -- and in the "wCH" or changeup category, you'll find some of the game's top names.

While Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies has FanGraphs' best change so far in 2011, with 10.6 runs saved, some of the other big names -- Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum and James Shields -- are in the top 10, too. Vargas, Hamels and St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia are in the top 15.

As always, different hitters will have different opinions.

"Shields in Tampa Bay has maybe the best one," Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu said. "You think it's a fastball, and then it's gone. It's hard to pick up and hard to hit. When you hit one, sometimes you're just fouling it off to save the at-bat. It's hard to make solid contact."

"Garcia's is so effective," Hart said, referring in particular to the Cardinals starter's near-perfect game against the Brewers on May 6. "His was moving. You could see it and recognize changeup, but it would move a foot. It would get to the plate and then move away. We've seen him before, but that was the best changeup we've ever seen from him, and it made him almost unhittable."

According to Mike Maddux, the vexing and at times mysterious nature of the pitch that has made throwing it into an undeniable art form might just be as simple as this: Go with a grip that works, throw it for a strike and have faith that it'll work for you.

"It's a basic concept," Mike said. "Just enough off the fastball to get you out front. And the fastball's just enough to get past you if you're sitting changeup. It's all about commanding your fastball and changing speeds.

"And if you can make it look like a fastball, God bless you."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.