“Pitching is a tapestry of deceit, experience and efficiency.”
Baseball writer Roger Angell
You’re approaching the traffic light, and have the feeling it’s going to change, and wonder if you should plan to slam the brakes or hit the gas, and what about the guy behind you, is he going to stop and … no matter what, you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t know if you’ve made the right decision until it’s over.
Well, that uncomfortable feeling is about what a hitter has when he knows the pitcher has a good changeup to go along with a decent fastball. He doesn’t know exactly when to pull the trigger, because it can come at any time, and often he ends up off-balance, and never feels at ease. And in the end, sometimes, the pitcher doesn’t even need to have a decent fastball – which truly provides a conundrum for the hitter.
The average major league fastball is roughly 90 MPH, depending on who you talk to. One online source said it was somewhere between 87-94 MPH. No one wants to commit to a true velocity, and there are legitimate reasons for that: all fastballs aren’t thrown at max velocity. Some are thrown at “control” velocity, and others feature movement over speed. So, 90 MPH sounds like a good place to start.
Now, imagine setting yourself for a fastball coming toward you at 90 or more. What happens when the pitcher “pulls the string,” throws the “cambio” or gives you the “Bugs Bunny changeup?” Chances are, you will be well in front of the pitch, and if you don’t miss it completely, you probably won’t hit it well. Result? Weak ground balls and lazy fly balls, and easy innings for the guy on the mound.
If you want, you can try and wait on the changeup. The problem with that is that the fastball will be blown by you. A pitcher with an average fastball of 90 can make it look like 110 MPH if he has a good change. Once the pitcher has the hitter uncomfortable and thinking too much, he has the at bat in hand.
Different pitches can be used as a changeup, or change of pace. Sandy Koufax used a slow curveball. Some, such as Bruce Sutter, have used the splitter or forkball. Trevor Hoffman set a major league record with saves based largely on his changeup, which he threw in the low-to-middle 70s. Nolan Ryan was never an easy at-bat, and part of the reason was that he had not only plus-plus velocity and a hammer curveball but also a changeup. That’s almost unfair for the hitter.
Velocity differential varies between the fastball and change depending upon the pitcher. Most effective changeups seem to be more than 12 MPH off the fastball, and some might be up to 20 MPH different.
A little over a week ago, I saw Fernando Rodney of Tampa Bay in his first outing of the spring. Pirate hitters got to see him in mid-season form: his fastball topped at 96 and his change ambled to the plate as low as 80. In an inning’s work, no one touched him. In fact, no one came close. As a former pitching coach, I spent the entire inning with a smile on my face.
The beauty of the changeup is that it can be an out pitch for anyone who masters it and has the courage to throw it. Thrown with the same motion, and ideally the same rotation as the fastball, it can induce a ground ball or pop-up, or it can strike a hitter out. It can also set up a fastball to look like an aspirin tablet headed toward the plate.
Certainly, a pitcher needs command of a fastball to be able to pitch well consistently. But as secondary pitches go, some people overlook the value of the changeup. It might not look pretty. It just gets the job done!
Here’s a look at more on the changeup.
Wayne Tyson was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Follow him on Twitter @WayneTyson11.