Before Chapman’s fastball or Kershaw’s curveball were alternately frightening and vexing hitters, Johan Santana’s changeup was the most devastating pitch in baseball. Like Toad Style, a good change is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon; when it’s properly used it’s almost invincible.
The key to a great changeup is to make it look as though it’s actually a fastball. The pitcher’s arm action should be the same, but his grip will be altered so that he can’t put the same velocity behind it. Bradley Stone had a nice breakdown of various changeup grips last year on Stack.com. If it works, this sleight of hand and misdirection will produce nothing short of magic.
If, however, it’s not executed well, a changeup is just a pitch that’ll take a few extra hundredths of a second to reach the plate before being turned around and launched over a fence. It’s a simple concept and one you might think would be easy to master, but that’s far from true.
After all, for every David Blaine or David Copperfield, there are hundreds of schmoes performing at elementary schools and fast-food family nights. Then again, you don’t become a Vegas headliner overnight; everyone’s got to start somewhere.
Like magic, the best pitches are a little scary. And it’s that fear — of the unknown power and origins of something you can’t fully grasp or explain — that makes them exciting. That’s why I saw a small outburst online when Hector Rondon busted out a changeup in the 9th inning of the Cubs’ 2-1 victory over the Royals. It was something a lot of folks had never seen before.
But contrary to what some were thinking Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t the first time Rondon had changed things up. According to PITCHf/x, he tried this deceptive maneuver approximately 5 times (0.5% of 999 total pitches) in 2014. That was down from the 17 or so changes (1.8% of 935 pitches) he threw in 2013, though the 7.44 runs above average per 100 pitches on those offerings explains the drop in usage.
So while it’s not a brand-new pitch in the Cubs closer’s arsenal, I think I’m willing to forgive even the most ardent fans for missing the presence of a pitch he’s thrown less than 25 times in three seasons. It’s even more forgivable when you consider that, again according to PITCHf/x, Rondon hadn’t thrown the change a single time here in 2015. But if he can continue to develop the pitch, it could do great things for his career and for the Cubs’ pen.
Consider, if you will, Santana’s use of the change and what it did for his pitching. As when I compared Mariano Rivera to Travis Wood when discussing the cutter, I provide again the caveat that I am presenting one pitch as an ideal form in the sense of Platonic realism.
From 2004-08, Johan Santana was arguably the best pitcher in baseball; he won the Cy Young twice and never finished lower than 5th in the voting for the award. That jump in ’04 coincided with an increased use of the changeup, from 15.5% to 21.1%; he would continue to use it at a high rate, peaking at 29.1% in 2007.
What made Santana’s change unhittable was the difference in velocity from his fastball, which averaged about 92 mph during the timeframe in question here. The change clocked in at only 80.5 though, a drop in nearly 12 mph; batters were constantly out in front of it. As a point of reference, the average MLB fastball is also 92 mph, but the average change is 83.3.
That might not seem like much, but when you think about all the things that must go right in order to properly strike a nine-inch horsehide sphere traveling three-dimensionally through sixty feet and six inches of space with a round stick, 2.8 mph is a big deal.
And that’s the key; it’s not about actual velocity but in the differential between that of the fastball and the change. Baseball is a game of timing and if you can keep a hitter from finding his, you’re going to do well on the mound. Since Rondon throws harder than the average pitcher (95.8 on the heater this season), he doesn’t necessarily need a drastic drop in velo to make the changeup play.
Still, he may need to do a bit more to dial down the 88.6 mph average that he’s put up so far, a mark that is only 5.5 ticks below his career-average fastball. It should be noted too that Rondon has backed off of the fastball from in favor of the slider this season as well. And for good reason, as the slide-piece has easily been his best pitch in terms of runs above average.
It’s entirely possible that breaking out the change was merely a fluke and that it’s a pitch Rondon will never be willing or able to master. But his increased reliance on the slider — and, to a lesser extent, the cutter — tells me that this is a pitcher whose repertoire is still evolving.
If he is able to find a grip and technique that allows him to shave another few miles per hour from that top-end velo, Rondon could find himself in possession of a pitch that makes him an indispensable member of the bullpen. How great would it be to have a guy out there pumping 95 mph gas in the 9th, only to drop a change in here and there at 85?
For my money, it doesn’t get much better than seeing a batter completely fooled when he flails helplessly as a pitcher pulls the string on the ball. Kind of like a magician making you see something that’s simply not there.
Is it audacious to hope Rondon can get to that point? Probably, but I’m going to choose to continue to believe in magic…for now anyway.