RubberDucks pitchers focus on developing changeups
Improving changeups a focal point in Akron this season
While attending a game at Canal Park this season, fans can "ooh and ah" at the fastballs popping in the high-90s on the scoreboard radar gun. Same with the visible, knee-buckling break of a curveball or slider.
But the changeup is a less noticeable and understated element of pitching.
"They're not as sexy as breaking balls or fastballs," Akron RubberDucks pitcher Kyle Davies said. "But you look at people who have been very successful over the years for a long time, they've always had… some type of pitch that looks like a fastball, but isn't a fastball."
The key with a changeup, according to RubberDucks pitching coach Jeff Harris, is the way it disrupts a hitter's timing. When thrown right, Harris noted the deception the pitch brings to a pitcher's offerings.
"You don't have to be pinpoint accurate with it," Harris said. "Hitters really have a hard time identifying a good changeup because it looks like a fastball. A curveball, you can see it spins different. A changeup spins the same as a fastball."
RubberDucks manager Dave Wallace -- a former catcher -- can speak from experience what a changeup does to a hitter. The idea a pitcher throws a fastball and a changeup puts some doubt in a hitter's head, doubt that gives pitchers an edge.
"[As a hitter,] we're taught to pick up spin of the ball," Wallace said. "A lot of times you can pick up the spin on a slider or curveball. Changeup, it's harder to pick up the spin, so it looks more like a fastball… If you see the spin and you're still not sure if it's fastball or changeup, you're not going to be as aggressive and not going to be as successful, really."
If a pitcher slows his arm or hand down while throwing a changeup, hitters can pick it up and know a changeup is coming. With that in mind, Wallace emphasizes trusting the grip to take the speed off and keeping the arm and hand speed identical to that of a fastball.
Having a changeup does not guarantee a pitcher success, but as Davies notes, along with a "good, well-located fastball, it's not going to hurt you." Davies would know, as the right-hander used his highly-rated changeup to a seven-year major league career that spanned 2005 to 2011.
"I use a circle changeup," Davies said. "I have three fingers on the top of the ball and nothing up under the ball. So the ball kind of comes out like a fastball, but it's back in my hand, so I can take the speed off of it and hopefully it spins four-seam just like my fastball does."
Davies focused on his fastball-changeup mix as he grew up, not throwing many breaking balls before getting to the major leagues.
"When I came up, the big thing was we don't throw breaking balls until we develop our arms," Davies said. "So [the idea was] let's do something that's not just fastball, fastball, fastball, and that was a changeup."
Even though many RubberDucks pitchers talked about focusing on the fastball-changeup mix when they were younger, right-hander Duke von Schamann noted that by high school, most pitchers did not need that changeup as much.
"A lot of the guys here, playing pro ball, we all had pretty good arms in high school," von Schamann said. "So we threw a lot of fastballs. We all thought we had a changeup back then, but we didn't. But in college, I really started to use it and work on it a lot and it's gotten a lot better since then, and now I feel pretty comfortable with it."
"I throw a two-seam changeup, with all my fingers," von Schamann said. "Kind of a funky grip. I really wedge it in there and try to get a little drop on it. Almost kind of like a, not a split change, but it gets a little drop at the end."
What gives the changeup value, according to von Schamann, is how helpful it is in hitter's counts, messing them up when they are expecting a hittable fastball. He also called it the hardest pitch to master, though the payoff is well worth it.
"Whenever you have those great games, it seems like you always have your changeup," von Schamann said. "You can go games where you don't have your curveball and stuff, but when you pitch those really good games where you really keep [hitters] off balance, you've really got your changeup working low in the zone."
Though von Schamann is still improving his changeup, three RubberDucks pitchers -- Will Roberts, Kyle Crockett, and Enosil Tejeda -- are all really focused on improving their changeups during the 2014 season. Wallace thinks the key is not to have a good changeup, but to be consistent with it. In order to do that, pitchers must work on it in games.
"You've got to throw it in a game or it's not going to get better," Wallace said. "You're going to need that weapon as you move up to Triple-A and then eventually the big leagues. So there's no better time to work on it. If you don't work on it now and develop it, then you ain't never going to be in the big leagues."
Roberts is one pitcher who realizes that. The right-hander did not use it much last season and wants to focus on changing that in 2014.
"It's really a pitch, if you don't make a focus to throw it, you're probably not going to throw it," Roberts said.
"I throw a four-seam [changeup]," Roberts said. "I mainly just throw four-seam fastballs. So if you throw a two-seam fastball, you want to throw a two-seam changeup. I throw a four-seam. It's more of a straight changeup right now."
The problem for Roberts is remembering to use the changeup; the fastball-breaking ball combination is not just sexy to fans, it is to pitchers as well.
"Once you learn a breaking ball, a lot of people kind of fall in love with it," Roberts said. "I know I've kind of fallen into that trap throughout my career. But I think if you can mix in changeups with breaking balls and then locate your fastball, you’re going to be tough to beat."
Just like Roberts is making a concerted effort to develop his changeup in 2014, relievers Tejeda and Crockett are also working on that growth this season.
Tejeda uses a three-finger grip on his changeup, a pitch he picked up in 2011. Since he started using it late, Tejeda is utilizing this season to work on his changeup and called it "very important" for him in 2014.
Crockett feels the same way, especially since he got away from the pitch in recent years. Like Roberts, the left-handed Crockett started using his fastball-slider combination more in college and in his first exposure to professional baseball in 2013.
"I try to throw it at least once every game," Crockett said. "[The organization is] always looking at how many pitches you have, what you can use to get guys out, and just having that extra pitch that you can throw just lets them know you can go in there and get different guys out. If somebody up in the big leagues is a good slider-fastball hitter, you've got to have something else to get them out."
"I changed up my grip a little bit in the offseason and I've been getting pretty good results with it so far," Crockett said. "I used to use a two-seam grip and now I'm using a four-seam."
Since Crockett is a left-handed reliever, he runs the risk of becoming a matchup pitcher only brought in to face one left-handed batter. Developing his changeup, a pitch that is particularly effective against right-handed batters, is something Crockett feels can let him go for a whole inning, not just one batter.
A changeup is harder to scout and not as sexy, but that pitch can make or break a pitcher. Harris remarked that velocity is what gets pitchers drafted and their foot in the door.
"Once you get your foot in the door, velocity will keep you around," Harris said. "But you've really got to figure out how to get people out… [The changeup's] a feel pitch, so it definitely takes time to develop…
"[It's a] forgotten, but very important and necessary pitch to have."
If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.