TWINS LEFTY Johan Santana throws a 94-mile-an-hour fastball and a slider that falls off a table, but it's his wicked changeup that has thrust him into the upper echelon of major league pitchers--and to the top of this week's SI Players poll (page 34). "It's good because he's [always] got the same speed with his arm. Same motion," says Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who has two hits in 12 career at bats against the 2004 AL Cy Young Award winner. "Some guys slow down a little bit, but he doesn't. It looks like a fastball."
Thanks to a grip in which he holds the ball close to his palm with his index finger on the inside seam and his middle fingers over the top seams (inset), Santana's changeup crosses the plate about 15 miles per hour slower than his heater. He perfected the pitch in 2002, when the Twins sent him to Triple A Edmonton so that pitching coach Bobby Cuellar could help him convert from reliever to starter. "Bobby told me about throwing different pitches as a starter and having confidence in your changeup," says Santana, 26. "In bullpen sessions, we acted like it was a game situation." Soon Santana joined a lineage of changeup chuckers that traces back to Giants righthander Tim (Sir Timothy) Keefe who debuted in 1880 and, relying heavily on the pitch, went on to win 346 career games.
A change for the better for Santana? In 2000 and '01, his first two seasons in the majors, Santana had a 5.90 ERA and struck out 6.39 batters per nine innings; since then he's had a 3.00 ERA and 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings. And, says Santana, "Sixty percent of my strikeouts are with the changeup." --Ben Reiter