HOUSTON — Behold the changeup, the humblest of pitches. It traffics in neither velocity nor break, the most attention-getting of pitching elements. The charm of the changeup is in the subtlety of its deception.
Songs, poems and movie scripts are written about the mighty fastball and parabolic curveball. The changeup inspires creative wordsmithing about as much as air leaking out of a balloon. It exists more on what it is not than what it is. It is the most Machiavellian of pitches.
It takes a true baseball aficionado to truly appreciate the changeup. For those who watched rookie Ian Anderson of the Atlanta Braves pitch in Game 2 of the National League Division Series Wednesday–just like the entirety of his eight-start career–they saw a masterpiece. A magnus opus. An ode. An art house gem.
The Miami Marlins are not among such appreciative patrons of these arts. Anderson threw them 30 changeups. Twenty-three of them were strikes. They tried to hit 21 of them. They missed nine times. They put only five of them into play, all for outs.
Anderson gave them no runs over 5 2/3 innings, as did four relievers who threw no-hit ball the rest of the way. The Braves won, 2-0, moving them within one win of dispatching the Marlins in the same manner they did the Reds: with suffocating pitching, especially from Anderson.
Anderson has won his two postseason starts, 2-0 and 5-0, and while he’s been on the mound he has been given just three runs with which to work. At 22 years old, Anderson has begun his postseason career with 11 2/3 shutout innings with 17 strikeouts. Not bad for someone who still hasn’t pitched in front of a big-league crowd.
Four years ago, he was attending the Shenendehowa High senior prom and didn’t have a real changeup. Now he is the breakout star of this postseason, a new playoff version of 24-year-old Christy Mathewson in 1905 and 22-year-old Michael Wacha in 2013, both of whom were impresarios of deception.
Anderson pitches as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception.” He has thrown his changeup 234 times in the big leagues. Only five resulted in hits. Batters have hit .086 against it, including .000 in the postseason. Not bad for the fastball-curveball high school pitcher who adopted the changeup in 2018 in high A ball and considered it his go-to pitch only last year.
“Yeah, it’s been a pretty good pitch for me the last couple of years,” said Anderson, who has a genuine aw-shucks, happy-to-be here demeanor as if he snuck into the big leagues through an unguarded side entry.
Like the young Wacha, Anderson benefits from a true overhand release point. His fastball and changeup emerge from the same spot every time and travel on the same plane, until the changeup sinks a bit just as the hitter brings hit bat around to what he sees as a fastball.
Because Anderson throws with that high arm angle, there is little run or fade to his changeup. It does not switch lanes. He also throws it hard, destroying the myth that changeups need big velocity separation from fastballs. He wants the changeup to look as much as possible like a fastball. He averages 87.4 mph on his changeup, the seventh-fastest velocity on the pitch from the 57 pitchers who threw at least 150 changeups this year.
Understand this about that subset of changeup practitioners: it is almost half the size of those who threw at least 150 sliders (102). The slider is the diva of the today’s pitching. It wants both velocity and break. Changeup artists like Anderson are exceptional in today’s game.
This was the third time the Marlins had seen Anderson in 30 days, which made his deception all the more remarkable.
“He attacked us,” Marlins second baseman John Berti said. “He’s got some life on his fastball. He was able to work his changeup off that. That’s what he was able to do against us. We knew he was going to try to do that based on the last couple of times we saw him. I think he located a little better today than the last few times.”
In one spot of trouble in the fourth, Anderson held a 1-0 lead with the tying run on second and one out. The changeup extricated him from trouble. Garrett Cooper and Matt Joyce each popped it into the air for easy outs.
“I can’t say enough about Travis [d’Arnaud],” Anderson said about his catcher. “When I get in a jam I know he’s got my back back there.”
The day before Anderson started Game 2, d’Arnaud shook his head and smiled broadly when he was asked about Anderson’s demeanor. “Amazing how cool he is,” the catcher said, “and he’s like that every day.”
Game 2 marked just another day in the amazing start to a young pitcher’s career. As the Braves would bat in between the half inning when Anderson was mesmerizing the Marlins, Anderson would sit atop the dugout bench and laugh and smile along with teammates. There was none of the typical locked-in, scowling game face that is typical with pitchers. There is both enjoyment and studiousness about the way Anderson goes about making a name for himself.
“I see it every day, even in his off days,”d’Arnaud said. “He’s always locked in, paying attention to every hitter, how he thinks he would get them out. He does his homework. He’s just always been like that ever since I’ve seen him up here.
“I think he’s going to do it for the rest of his career and it’s something that should be noticed and put out there.”
The baseball world is noticing. With that changeup, it's as if Anderson is taking instruction from Machiavelli’s The Prince, his 16th-century instruction booklet for new princes and royals. Wrote Machiavelli, “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” The new prince of baseball has learned well.