Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 9

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the ninth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Brad Brach, Daniel Mengden, and Kirby Yates— on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Brad Brach (Orioles) on His Changeup

“”It’s weird. In college, my changeup was probably my best pitch, but when I got to pro ball [in 2008] I wasn’t able throw it. I don’t know if it was the minor-league balls or what, but I kept cutting it all the time. It was hard for me to throw strikes with it, so I pretty much got rid of it and started throwing a splitter.

“I’d thrown a splitter in college, too. I’d gotten comfortable with it in high school, and in college it was basically my out pitch to lefties. I just kind of split my fingers on the ball — it was more like a forkball — and I was able to throw it over the plate better than my changeup when I was in the minor leagues.

“In 2012, in San Diego, for whatever reason, I started being able to throw my old changeup again. It’s a two-seam circle. Nothing crazy about the grip, just ring finger and middle finger on seams, and the circle on the side.

“The bullpen coach in San Diego at the time was Darrel Akerfelds, and in spring training he saw me throw my split and my change. He asked, ‘When do you normally throw your splitter?’ I was like, ‘0-2, 1-2 to lefties with nobody on base.’ That’s because it was good, but I didn’t always know where it was going to go. My changeup was more consistent at the time, and had the same downward action, so he said, ‘Get rid of the splitter.’ I did that, and started going with my old changeup.”

Daniel Mengden (Athletics) on His Changeup

“My changeup is one of the better pitches for me — an off-balance pitch for me — and I think it’s the greatest pitch in baseball. A fastball-changeup combo is something a lot of pitchers can live off of for a long time. Trevor Hoffman… I loved watching him throw. His changeup was devastating.

“For me, a changeup was a really hard pitch to throw. It took me from high school to the end of my college career at Texas A&M before I finally had one. It’s one of those things where I literally just kept trying something new, trying something new.

“I think it was a mix of arm angle and arm speed, but I could never throw a changeup soft. I tried probably every grip can you think of. Nothing really worked, nothing really moved. Was just kind of a straight, slower fastball. I wanted something with a little bit of depth and a little bit of run to it, and with this crazy, weird grip I came up with it’s become a good, dive-y changeup. When I’m really on with it, some guys say it’s almost like a backwards slider.

Daniel Mengden’s unorthodox changeup grip.

“The grip is extremely unorthodox. I choke it, and basically my middle finger and ring finger are the two main fingers. One day, I just started dabbling with that, playing catch with it at 90-120 [feet], and it started coming out with really good sink and fade. When you’re throwing at 90-ish, you can really see the movement of it — exaggerated, of course. From there I worked with it on the mound and it slowly became a pitch.”

Kirby Yates (Padres) on His Splitter

“I started mixing in a splitter in the second half of last season. It ended up getting pretty good — when I throw my good one I get swings and misses — so I’ve been going to it a little more. I basically needed another pitch. I felt I had to rely on my slider too much, and at times my slider wasn’t good. When it wasn’t good I was getting hit pretty hard.

“A split-finger is something I knew I could throw. I didn’t feel like it would be a difficult pitch for me to learn, it was just a matter of getting a grip and a feel for it. When I was in New York there were a couple of guys who threw splitters — Chasen Shreve, Nathan Eovaldi, and Masahiro Tanaka — and I talked to them, and they showed me some grips. I liked Tanaka’s grip — it made sense the way he held it — and Shreve talked to me a lot about arm speed and how to throw it.

“I played catch with Alex Cobb a lot in the offseason that year, too. That helped me a lot. Some days we’d be out to 90 feet, trying to get on top of it, but for the most part we were in close trying to get the action we wanted. It took a few of months before I was able to command it and get the consistent movement I wanted, but it eventually became a comfortable pitch for me.”

We hoped you liked reading Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 9 by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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