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How the changeup has changed the game

Photo: Gail Burton/AP

Chris Tillman's changeup grip, seen here, has helped turn him into an All-Star.

The most important pitch in baseball doesn't break sharply on its way to the plate. It deliberately lacks eye-popping velocity. It can't be effective with exclusive usage, as some have done with pitches that cut or knuckle. Its very name implies a need for contrast with a companion.

When the baseball emerges from the pitcher's hand with backspin, the seams rapidly churn up from under the ball and over the top, the tell-tale sign of either the favored pitch of hitters, the fastball, or of its ultra-important sidekick, the changeup.

"Hitters, even if they're sitting on [the changeup], they see that spin, and they're like sharks in the water," said Braves righthander Kris Medlen. "They smell blood. They see four-seam spin, and even if they're sitting on a changeup, in the back of their head, they're like, 'Oooh, fastball.'"

Velocity and power remain the game's most prized attributes, but in a league where most guys can throw the ball hard or slug the ball far, the changeup keeps them honest. It's the enforcer, albeit one with more bite than brawn.

"I think a changeup is the biggest equalizer in the game," Baltimore's All-Star righthander Chris Tillman said. "It's probably the best pitch in baseball, to tell you the truth."

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In this new era of the pitcher, the cutter gets most of the press as the transformative pitch, but the changeup is the more common thread in the personal arsenals of the game's best pitchers.

"I think to get from being a good pitcher to getting to an elite level, one, it takes health and, two, it takes having that changeup," said Diamondbacks righthander Brandon McCarthy, who has emphasized the development of his own changeup all season. "Any pitcher I can think of that has really gotten to that next level, almost all of them to a man it has been because of the changeup."

Indeed, many of the game's best pitchers are among the heaviest practitioners of the changeup: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Jarrod Parker, James Shields, Chris Sale, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Mike Minor, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Matt Harvey, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Medlen and Tillman all throw the pitch more than the league-wide average of about 10 percent.

Adding the pitch has been instrumental for many pitchers. The Orioles' Tillman, for example, said he threw it a lot more in 2012 as he went from a 5.58 ERA in 36 career starts from 2009-11 to a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts last season.

"It was probably my biggest pitch last year," he said. "It got me out of some jams and also got me deep in ballgames."

The impact of the changeup was reinforced to McCarthy in last year's ALDS, when his seat in Oakland's dugout afforded him a close look at how the Tigers' Verlander dominated the A's in Game 5 -- a four-hit, 11-strikeout, complete-game shutout -- with heavy doses of the changeup. Verlander used the pitch 24 times, 17 for strikes (including six swings and misses), at a speed nine mph less than his fastball.

McCarthy singled out Verlander and Sabathia, both former Cy Young winners, as elite pitchers known for power who are can be just as devastating with their changes.

"It's easy to take over a game with just that pitch," McCarthy said, "and nobody associates them with [it]."

The pitchers themselves recognize its value, of course. Verlander said his changeup has been a bit "overlooked" while noting that it can be a little inconsistent, but he said, "When it's really good, I can pretty much throw it whenever I want."

Said Sabathia, "I don't feel like I started dominating games until I started throwing a good one."

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There are commonly two end objectives for the changeup: "a bat misser and a worm killer." That's Harry Pavlidis' folksy terms for pitches intended to induce strikeouts or groundballs. Pavlidis, the founder of Pitch Info (which supports the indispensible BrooksBaseball.net) and the director of technology for Baseball Prospectus, studied the pitch in depth and concluded that those who get swings and misses on their changeup typically have an above-average fastball with a large gap in velocity on the change (at least 10 mph), whereas higher-velocity changeups with sinking action more often result in groundballs.

(For Pavlidis' entire series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

Furthermore, changeups used to be a pitch primarily used to retire hitters of opposite handedness -- right vs. left and vice versa -- but increasingly are being accepted as a pitch that can be thrown to all hitters.

For one ace, it happened out of necessity. When Verlander was a rookie, he developed a blister on his pitching hand that prevented him from throwing his knuckle-curve. He tried a traditional curve grip, which didn't work well for him.

"For two months it was just absolutely brutal," Verlander said. "So I started throwing changeups to righties, too. At that point, nobody really did that. This was 2006 and not a lot of guys threw right-on-right changeups, so I saw a lot of success with that. I actually saw a lot of swings and misses and strike ones and easy groundballs with that pitch so I've kept it in my back pocket ever since then."

Though examples of effectiveness are becoming clearer, the frequency of use in right-on-right and left-on-left situations hasn't changed much in the last five years, according to Pavlidis. That's as far back as his detailed pitch usage data goes, however, but conversations with pitchers and coaches in the game clearly show that attitudes are changing even if the hard numbers haven't yet followed suit.

Rick Peterson, the Orioles' director of pitching development and a former big league pitching coach, believes the pitch is being used regardless of which side of the plate the batter hits from because of the increase in information and video available to pitchers and coaches showing that the pitch could be effective to all hitters.

A top-10 list of the best changeups in the game's recent history would undoubtedly include Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana and Trevor Hoffman, all of whom were tutored by Peterson during his various stops as a pitching coach for the Athletics, Brewers and Mets.

"Every one of them, their mindset with the changeup was, 'I'm going to throw this pitch below the strike zone,'" Peterson said. "Not in the strike zone but just below the strike zone."

Out of the pitchers' hand, it would look like a thigh-high fastball, prompting hitters to swing before they realized the pitch was actually a changeup at the shin.

Photo: Paul Sancya/AP

Justin Verlander is known for his fastball but his changeup can be just as important to him.

There's no universal way of throwing a changeup. One common type, the circle change, involves forming a circle on the side of the ball with the thumb and index finger while the middle and ring fingers reach over the top. It typically involves burying the baseball deeper into the hand, rather than throwing it from the fingertips, in order to increase drag on the ball. And instead of extending the fingers toward the plate on the release, which maximizes velocity, pitchers often pull their hands down as they throw the changeup, in a motion that resembles pulling down a window shade.

But in almost every conversation about the changeup, the phrase "feel pitch" will be uttered, with significant variations. (Oakland's Dan Straily tried these nine different grips, as detailed on FanGraphs.com.)

The Angels' Jered Weaver describes his as "in-between a palm ball and a circle change" and notes that he's messed around with grips and finger placements since learning the pitch at the behest of his pitching coach at Long Beach State, Troy Buckley, 11 years ago.

"You can't just show somebody the pitch and they can just figure it out," Weaver said. "Most pitches, everybody has their own grip, but there's only a couple certain ways you can throw a slider and a curveball. With the changeup, there's many different grips you can throw. It's just a matter of finding the one that works for you."

It's even important to pair a four-seam changeup with a four-seam fastball because mixing a two-seam pitch with a four-seam companion will tip the pitch to big league hitters.

"The spins are different, but in college you can get away with it," Weaver said. "But if you try to do that up here, there's no way. [Hitters] can see the difference. I went to a four-seam changeup so I can have the same spin coming off [my] fastball."

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Few pitchers even throw changeups as amateurs, when there is little incentive to develop a third pitch because a fastball and breaking ball combination work just fine.

Says Verlander, "Most guys at this level obviously threw really hard for their level as an amateur, so all the changeup did was allow guys to hit it. It was [at] their bat speed and not a lot of movement."

Most pitchers, therefore, are learning the changeup in pro ball. That puts the onus on each club's player development team to teach the pitch. Some clubs clearly emphasize it more than others. For instance, the Rays routinely lead the majors in percentage of changeups thrown, according to FanGraphs, and Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright has said he wants his staff to throw changeups for at least 14 percent of its pitches.

"One of the major pillars of your pitching development program is developing a changeup," said Peterson, who works with young pitchers through his company, 3P Sports. "A changeup totally disguises [a hitter's] pitch recognition if you have fastball spin."

Sabathia didn't learn the pitch until Double A, when members of the Indians organization urged him to learn another secondary pitch, given some inconsistency with his curve. Still, Sabathia said he was in the big leagues for two or three years before he began to use the pitch with any regularity.

"If I was a pitching coach," Sabathia said, "all my pitchers would have changeups."

Royals starter James Shields turned to the changeup after having an operation on his shoulder as a minor leaguer that left him in need of a reinvention.

"After surgery I lost a lot of velocity obviously just from rehabbing," he said. "When I came back, I needed another pitch so I decided to work with my brother."

One of Shields' older brothers, Jeremy, was a pitcher at Division I Cal State Northridge who had a really good changeup, and one day Shields asked to see how he threw it. Jeremy was lefthanded, so Shields mirrored the grip, tweaked it for himself and worked on it extensively.

"I just kept throwing it until I found a good grip," Shields said. "After that, I took it into the next season, and it worked out pretty well."

Shields has thrown the changeup for more than a quarter of all pitches in his big league career, and his 26.9 percent reliance on the pitch ranks fifth in the majors over the last three seasons, according to FanGraphs.com.

There's not always an even development trajectory with the pitch. Mat Latos, now with the Reds, dedicated much of the offseason before his rookie year in 2009 to mastering the changeup. It didn't work as well as he had hoped so he scrapped it before reinstituting it later as a pitch to get lefthanded batters out.

"It's still a work in progress, but it's something that's come along pretty good for me lately," Latos said earlier this season. "It's something that I wanted to work on and didn't get results, so I kind of gave up on it. Now it's something I'm getting results from."

Tillman learned his in the minors but struggled with the feel of it. "I was always hesitant to throw it, and then I got to the big leagues and realized, I really need to throw this pitch," he said. Tillman had little choice early on: in his debut, catcher Gregg Zaun kept calling for the pitch even when Tillman shook him off.

"He made me throw it," Tillman said of Zaun, "and from then on [Orioles starting catcher Matt] Wieters pretty much made me throw it. That's when I saw what it did for me."

Other pitchers might see similar results if they start throwing it sooner, when it can also help protect their young arms and develop their approach.

"It's something that should be taught way younger and emphasized because -- once you get a feel for it -- it's a simple pitch," McCarthy said. "It's not as stressful on your arm as breaking balls.

"It requires more thinking. Watch the Little League World Series and youth tournaments where it's breaking ball-heavy -- it's not thinking, it's just, 'Kids can't hit that yet.' A changeup, there's something to it. There's a strategy to it. It helps bring you along as a pitcher. If you can have that later on, that's something you'll always have. It's a weapon that's always in your back pocket before you build in a breaking ball or anything else."

For now, the changeup is more finishing piece than fundamental, but its impact is undeniable, any way you spin it.

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