Back in High School, my pitching coach used to sit down all of the starting pitchers (all three of us) from the varsity squad to have a chat about pitching philosophy. Coach was a former minor league pitcher who flamed out after injury and ineffectiveness, but his love of pitching was obvious, if not a little obsessive. He used to preach about a lot of things, controlling your emotions, mechanics, pacing, etc. But it was always the video I looked forward to.
He’d roll out the rickety old metal stand with a crummy 18 inch TV and antiquated betamax player. Not only had we seen it before, but we would never really understand the usefulness of the demonstration. But it was still fun to watch.
The video featured a variety of pitchers, but the ones I remember the most were Bill Lee and Dave Stieb. This was his lesson on changing speeds, and almost all of the featured major league pitchers were tossing some form of an eephus pitch. “You don’t need to throw 100 miles an hour to get hitters out,” he’d preach, even though any of us were lucky to break 82. And so we were a clan of kids constantly developing our change-ups. And for the most part, we got shelled.
But this isn’t about me, because that would be painful — it’s about changing speeds and those who do it well. In 2012, there were three qualified starting pitchers who used their change-up over 20% of the time and registered more than a 10 mph difference between their change and fastball: Chris Capuano, Jarrod Parker, and Jeremy Hellickson. If you trust the pitch-type linear weights, they didn’t have the best change-ups in the league, although they were all rated as quite good. And I’m not suggesting that the separation between the two pitches is some measure of “goodness,” — after all, Felix Hernandez and Matt Cain are among those with the least amount of separation in the two pitches. But to mirror the same arm slot, same arm speed, and same motion while throwing the ball appreciably slower seems to me to be an art form. So here we’ll just take the gallery tour.
Of the group, Capuano has the slowest fastball (what is probably more of a sinker), but he also threw one of the slowest change-ups in the league at 77.8 mph. Only Bruce Chen and Barry Zito averaged slower pitches in 2012. He uses his change mostly against right handed batters, and in the following two shots, you can see what he does to poor Gorkys Hernandez in consecutive at bats. In the first inning, he strikes him out on a 78 mph change and then in the fourth, Hernandez is obviously protecting for the floater and then a belt high 88 mph goes zipping right on by like it’s Clayton Kershaw out there.
Of the three, Parker features the “best” fastball at a hair above 92 mph, but actually had greater separation between pitches than Capuano with an 11.4 mph difference. He uses his change against right handed batters in few counts other than when he has two strikes. But against left handed batters, he throws it almost half the time when he’s ahead in the count, making it his primary go-to pitch for strikeouts.
Parker isn’t necessarily known as a big strikeout guy with just an 18.6% K rate. He’s blessed enough with a good fastball, but what makes his change-up such an incredible pain to opposing batters is the arm slot and delivery. I’m not sure he’s quite the illusionist as perhaps Capuano and Hellickson might be, but if you check the release point on his fastball and change over the 2012 season, with the exception of a handful of pitches, it’s pretty much an exact copy.
Hellickson used his change over 28% of the time this past season and featured the biggest separation between it and his fastball at 11.6 mph. Unlike Parker, Hellickson uses his change almost equally to both left and right handed batters, although he tends to go to it against righties more in two strike counts.
Below, you can see his change up and fastball in virtually the same spots, but separated by about 15 miles per hour. The first is J.P. Arencibia on a in a 2-2 count, waving over a 78 mph change and then Brett Lawrie in a 2-2 count unable to catch up to a 93 mph fastball. The locations on both are pretty much perfect.
The location doesn’t change much versus left handed batters either. From the same game against the Toronto Blue Jays, he gets Adam Lind with the exact same pitch he threw Arencibia.
I like the camera angle we get at Tropicana Field as well, as you can really see how technical Hellickson’s deliver is with his pace and arm angle. In this particular game, Hellickson was pretty dialed in — and it makes it awful tough on opposing batters.
Again, this isn’t to say these are the best change-ups from 2012, but they were certainly among the best. These three starters have just mastered the art of deception, helping to lend evidence to my poor old coach’s adage that you indeed don’t need to throw 100 miles per hour to get batters out, although we all know it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps as a public service, I should send him an updated tape of these three — but I’m going to need to find a betamax.