“Our BP pitcher would tell us that a change-up was coming and he would still dominate us” Jim Vatcher, former major league outfielder.
When was the last time you heard a hitter say, “I can’t wait to hit this guys change-up”. Possibly never. The truth is hitters love fastballs. It’s what they’ve grown up on. It’s basically all they see in batting practice and it’s the one pitch that they are most geared to hit. Pitchers too have grown up on fastballs. It’s the pitch they’ve been trained to establish, command and condition their arm with. It’s also the one pitch they traditionally throw more often in game situations than all other pitches combined (change, curve, slider, etc.).
Put in these terms, it’s easy to understand why a hitter will often get what he’s looking for, and a pitcher will often deliver it.
On the other hand, good change-ups are very annoying to hitters. They are hard to detect, and hard to predict. They are often tricky, confusing and frustrating. Besides, change-ups are not what the hitter is looking for, and not what the hitters mind is used to seeing. Let’s face it — deep down, hitters don’t want any part of a change-up, even if they know it’s coming.
With this said why don’t pitchers throw change-ups more often? If a fastball is what the pitcher is inclined to throw and a hitter is inclined to look for it, why do so many pitchers continue to fall into this trap? Why aren’t pitchers taught to throw more change-ups when it is precisely the one pitch that can upset the hitters timing the most? After all, isn’t upsetting a hitters timing one of the major goals of a pitcher?
Well, there are a number of reasons why pitchers have neglected the change-up, so let’s examine them first. Then, you’ll understand why the change-up has to be thrown more often if you want to raise your game to the next level. You’ll also understand why “great stuff” without the threat of a change-up doesn’t necessarily translate to success between the lines.
Why The Change-Up Now?
So let’s put this all in perspective. Over the past century, our hitters have been working almost exclusively on hitting fastballs, and our pitchers are predominately taught to throw fastballs. Now I know what a lot of you may be thinking. Hitters should be working on the fastball because that’s predominately what they are going to see, and it’s what they want to hit (i.e. there are very few hitters that are known as being a great curve ball, slider, split finger or change up hitter). And I agree…hitters should be working on hitting fastballs (at least until they face a pitcher who is pitching with a changed mentality). It’s the pitchers that have to make an adjustment, and this article has been written for this purpose.
Why The Change-up Has Been Neglected
The main reason the change-up has been neglected is because quite simply, it can be a very difficult pitch to throw. Because pitchers know how important speed differential is, they will often try to “slow” the change-up down by slowing their arm down, over manipulating the ball or completely altering their mechanics. This often causes the pitch to be inconsistent or get hit hard (because the hitter is tipped off). Either way, pitchers will tend to be very frustrated by not throwing a reliable change-up at the right speed. This frustration will often cause a pitcher to shelve his change-up.
Another major reason why change-ups are neglected is because pitchers learn at an early age (too early) the excitement of throwing a curve ball. Understandably so, from a very young age pitchers seem to be intrigued by seeing a pitch break. The curve ball often becomes the second pitch they learn. Again, there isn’t anything wrong with throwing a curveball (at the proper age), but this often causes the change-up to be an after thought to young pitchers.
Other reasons why the change-up seems to be discarded is because of “situational” pitching. Because starting pitchers are taught to “establish their fastball the first time through the order”, and short inning relievers are taught to “focus on throwing just two pitches for strikes (usually fastball/slider or fastball/curveball)” the change-ups involvement becomes minimized. In other cases, pitchers will let their ego get in the way by seeing how hard they can throw, or not wanting to be labeled a “soft thrower”.
Though, these are all “traditional” reasons why the change-up has been neglected, I will explain in the next section why, generally speaking, none of these reasons are acceptable anymore.
Why The Change-up Shouldn’t Be Neglected
Shelving the change-up because it is a difficult pitch to throw is not a reason to abandon it. It must be a major part of your repertoire if you are to find out how good you can be. Yes, it may take a great deal of work to learn how to “trust” your change-up, or throw it more consistently, but make the time to do it (the best way I’ve found for pitchers to learn how to “trust” their change-up is to believe that they are throwing a fastball with a different grip — for a detailed article on the mental side of throwing the change up, go to www.jaegersports.com and look in the “monthly message” archives).
As for the excitement of throwing a curveball, though it’s a very important pitch as well, it should be the 4th pitch you learn how to throw after the glove side fastball, arm side fastball and change-up. Then there’s the “traditional” theory that you need to “establish” your fastball the first time through the order, and as a reliever, you need to enter the game with “two pitches you can throw for strikes”. You need to enter the game ready to “pitch”. That is, you need to be prepared to throw the change-up to the first hitter of the first inning, and you need to be able to throw a change-up in addition to any other pitch/pitches you can throw for strikes. The last time I checked, games are won or lost in the first inning and middle innings, not just the last inning. This also helps explain why pitchers can often have trouble in the first inning, and middle relievers often seem to be so predictable (fastball/slider, fastball/curveball) in the later innings.
Finally, the worry about being labeled a pitcher that doesn’t challenge hitters is silly. Last time I checked, pitching was about getting hitters out. Do you think players in the opposing dugouts are yelling at Trevor Hoffman, Johan Santana or Pedro Martinez for not “challenging” hitters all of the time?
Though there may be a number of reasons why the change-up has been neglected, throughout this article, you will realize that it is a pitch that must be learned (if you don’t already throw one), and must be thrown more often. Without it, you are ultimately giving the hitter what he is looking for and what he is conditioned to hit.
The Mind Trick — Confusing The Muscle Memory of The Hitter As familiar as hitters are with seeing a fastball, they are equally unfamiliar with seeing a change-up because the brain has been trained through muscle memory over many years to measure the reaction time of a fastball (this is extremely important to keep in mind). This is especially apparent once a hitter reaches high school, and dramatically more apparent once a hitter enters college or professional baseball. In either case, at these advanced levels a hitters brain has been strongly programmed to hit fastballs. It’s what it wants, it what it likes and it’s what it hunts.
Here’s the catch — when a pitcher throws a change up with fastball mechanics at these levels, the brain is tricked because it responds as if it is a fastball. The main reason for this is because the change up appears to be a fastball to the brain. The brain has been conditioned over so many years to recognize something “straight” as being a fastball it literally tricks the mind. Now this may sound like I’m being a bit sarcastic, but when I use the term trick, I’m using it literally. That’s because the muscle memory of a hitters brain is so conditioned by something “straight” as being a fastball and something that spins as not being a fastball, it sends the message that a fastball is coming (assuming that you are throwing a four seam fastball/four seam change-up, or a two seam fastball/two seam change up). That’s why hitters don’t like hitting a change up in batting practice, even if they know it’s coming.
This also supports the reason why hitters do make relatively good adjustments on curve balls, sliders, and to a lesser degree, split finger fastballs. They either see a change in planes relatively quickly, or a change in spin on the baseball. This alerts the mind sub-consciously that something other than a fastball is coming.
The change up may be an off-speed pitch, but it doesn’t tell the brain that something “different” is coming. In fact, if a pitcher has good body language and arm speed, the brain will actually tell the hitter that a fastball is coming from past conditioning.
The Curve Ball and the Change-Up This is why a pitcher with a great curve ball or slider (who rarely throws a change-up) will not be typically as effective as a pitcher with a great change-up. When a pitcher throws a great curve ball the mind immediately recognizes that it is not a fastball, and the fastball is not a curve ball. Though the particular curve ball may be a great pitch, and even be a “slower” pitch like the change-up, it doesn’t deceive the mind in the same manner. This is because a fastball after a curve ball may still come fast, but the hitter is “assured” that it is a fastball and programmed to hit this pitch. There isn’t any threat that something other than a curve ball or fastball is coming.
The Slider and the Fastball The case of the slider is a bit different. Where a slider after a fastball may have some deception, a fastball after a slider has little effect on the mind. This is because the slider and the fastball are “similar” speeds. Though the slider following the fastball may deceive the mind, ultimately, the mind gets used to “everything” being hard. Then, if a fastball misses it’s spot or a slider doesn’t slide enough, the brain begins to register both at fastball speed. Again, the brain hasn’t “seen” a noticeably slower pitch to create the threat that something “else” could be coming.
Integrating the Change-up into your performance
If you are going to throw the change up for the effect of the pitch and how it sets up all of your other pitches, than it doesn’t do us a lot of good to throw it once in a while. In fact, plan on throwing it a lot more often than you’ve probably ever thrown it. Just as most of you have been conditioned to throw the fastball 65-70% of the time, and your change up 10-15% of the time, whether you are a power pitcher or not, you now have to think in terms of throwing your change up at least 20% of the time.
Before we talk about how to integrate your change up into your approach, let’s first make a few things clear: 1) Utilizing your fastball will still play a major role in your performance, 2) Throwing “other” pitches like the curve ball, etc.. is still very important, and 3) If you don’t throw a change up, by the time you finish reading this article, I hope it’s the first thing you address by tomorrow.
Let’s examine why.
Sequencing your change-up
As far as when to throw the change-up there are few basic rules that you can follow to see an immediate difference in your success on the mound. In no particular order:1) Avoid throwing more than 3 “hard” pitches in a row (fastball, slider, cut fastball) at the beginning of the at-bat. When a hitter doesn’t see a change-up early in the at-bat, the seed hasn’t been planted and his mind hasn’t been deceived yet. Remember, he’s on “auto-pilot” and is geared to hit fastballs until his mind has been altered. 2) Get used to showing your change-up very early in the first inning and doubling up on it…especially if you are a power pitcher. Again, this will not only “upset” the hitters approach but it will plant the seed early in the game that you are a threat to throw your change up at any time…and word spreads pretty quickly to the bench, if you know what I mean. 3) While we’re at it, don’t hesitate to triple up on your change-up if the situation presents itself in the first few innings, 4) Throw the change-up on 3-2 counts. It is one of the most ideal times to throw it and it will give you more freedom to not “give in” on 2-2 counts. 5) Integrating your curve ball or slider doesn’t have to change much, but keep in mind that, generally speaking, your curve ball/slider is not going to set your fastball up as well as your change-up, and your curve ball/slider may not be as effective after a fastball.
This is where the situation of a game and the effectiveness of a curve ball or slider factor in. There are times, of course, when it may not matter what you threw the pitch before, or what pitch you “should” throw. There are also pitchers like Mariano Rivera or Bruce Sutter, albeit rare, who can dominate with one pitch. But the reality is that the situation will dictate when it’s time to throw a curve ball, cut fastball or slider instead of your change-up. This is where every pitcher needs to trust his instincts — all “plans” need flexibility. The point is that a well thrown change-up is typically a better weapon then your curve ball or slider because it not only is harder to detect, but it is better suited to set up your fastball again.
The Infinite change-up theory
When thrown correctly, I believe that the change-up is so deceptive to a hitter that if a pitcher truly maintained his fastball mechanics, body language and arm action, a hitter would be fooled by an infinite amount of straight change-ups (okay, maybe only a few hundred). Here’s why.
First of all, hitters are pretty much in agreement that a great change-up is almost impossible to hit (see Trevor Hoffman, Johan Santana). So if we took a pitcher with a great changeup, who sold the hitter that he was throwing a fastball, the first thing that would happen as we’ve discussed is the hitters brain would believe that a fastball is coming. After the first swing and miss he would probably say to himself, “look fastball and adjust change up”, or “look fastball again because that’s the pitch I want to hit (in extreme cases a hitter may even look change up). When the pitcher throws the next change-up with great fastball mechanics, the hitters brain again would believe that a fastball is coming.
The reason I suggest that this effect would repeat itself infinitely is because after the first two change-ups, the hitter would begin to think that only one of two things can happen. Number 1, “he has to throw me a fastball at some point”, or 2, “I’m going to look change-up no matter what”. In the first scenario, he will continue get the message from his mind that a fastball is coming. In the second scenario, he may be looking change up, but in the back of his mind, he still doesn’t want to get beat on the one pitch he really wants — the fastball (and hitters especially don’t like to get beat in, right?).
Like a broken record, this same scenario would play itself out infinitely because the hitter will always, subconsciously, get the message that a fastball is coming because of the deception, and because he doesn’t want to get beat by the one pitch he wants…the fastball. Finally, with each passing change-up, the percentages actually increase that the pitcher is due to throw a fastball. Even in the absolute best case scenario, where he commits with every fiber of his being to look change-up, does he really want to hit a change-up? Is he really going to hit it that well? Is it a skill that he’s ever really worked on?
Whether it gets to infinity or not, I hope the point is well taken. Hitter’s don’t want to sit on change-ups or look for change-ups. The muscle memory of the brain hasn’t been programmed to respond to this pitch. In fact it’s quite the contrary. It’s been programmed to be fooled by this pitch.
A Final Word
You now have a choice — continue to be like so many pitchers who are feeding hitters what they are looking for, or start becoming the pitcher that is deceptive, unpredictable and frustrating to hitters. Just remember that the hitters mind is strongly wired to react to fastballs, and to a lesser degree, sliders. For this same reason, it also sees the spin of a curveball or the tumbling of a split finger relatively quickly. But a change-up gives the mind no reason to believe that anything other than a fastball is coming. And it responds accordingly.
If you want to dramatically improve your performance, plan on throwing the change-up dramatically more often. If it is not in your repertoire, start working on it right away and make it part of your repertoire. Until you come to terms with this concept, you may never come close to realizing how good you can truly be, even if you throw 95mph or have a great curve ball. Hitters can ultimately make adjustments there. But if you throw a change-up with good arm speed, good body language and fastball mechanics then I don’t need to know how hard you throw, or how good of a curve ball you have. I already know that the hitter is in trouble.
Alan Jaeger (@jaegersports) has worked privately with several professional players and has consulted with several college/high school programs including Cal State Fullerton & UCLA. Long time students include All-Stars Barry Zito & Mike Lieberthal. His mental training book “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”, Arm strength and conditioning throwing program, “Thrive on Throwing” (Video/DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) are available at www.jaegersports.com or 310-665-0746.