“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” -Warren Spahn
Pitchers, have you ever spoke with a hitter and just picked his brain about hitting? What is he learning? What is he trying to accomplish in the batting cage? What pitch does he least likely want to see in an at-bat? We know the power of observation can be a huge learning tool when trying to get hitters out. But, having conversations and asking questions like these to a hitter can give you a whole different perspective and really open up a world of knowledge that can help you become a better pitcher. Try it. You’ll be surprised by how open and honest they are about their approach.
When I played in the Frontier League in 2007, I distinctly remember a 3-4 day stretch where I spoke to a number of our hitters and asked them one question: What is the toughest pitch to hit? I didn’t want to know if an opponent had a particularly nasty pitch and I didn’t care about situational context. I simply wanted to know what pitch they hated to see and why. The feedback was incredible. An overwhelming majority didn’t even have to think about it. Numerous times I didn’t even have to ask for an explanation. They just offered up their answer and their reasoning. The funny thing is, any decent pitcher will already know the answer. They just don’t like to admit it because this pitch doesn’t have any flare. No excitement.
The Most Underrated Pitch in the Game
How great is it to see a guy blow a fastball by a hitter? Or throw a knee-buckling curveball that freezes a batter? It’s such a thrill to witness, and the excitement can keep a dugout and the stands talking about it an inning later. But, despite their awesomeness factor, those pitches do not keep hitters awake at night. The pitch that does, the one that really irritates them: the change-up. That’s right, the change-up. It’s the answer I got the most when talking to those hitters back in 2007, and it’s the most underrated pitch in baseball.
Timing is Everything
The reason a change-up is so effective is because of its deception. No other pitch can deceive a hitter quite like it. Why? Because it messes with the hitter’s timing. The most successful pitchers are those who disrupt a hitter’s timing by executing a variety of pitches thrown to different locations of the strike zone. Even the most mechanically sound hitter cannot distinguish a good change-up from a fastball, and that’s where the success of the pitch lies.
The challenge of a fastball is the overpowering velocity that it delivers. However, any good hitter can hit a fastball if he sees it enough times, no matter the speed. In fact, you don’t stay in the game too long as a hitter if you can’t hit the fastball. As for the breaking ball, the pitcher is trying to get the batter out with movement. While I would agree that movement can be a very effective tool, many pitchers have difficulty locating pitches with quality movement. And once again, as you progress to higher levels of the game, hitters become better at recognizing pitches as they leave the pitcher’s hand.
The change-up offers a different challenge all together. When thrown correctly, the pitcher should appear to be throwing a fastball. The arm action, the release point, and the spin of the ball should all be similar to the pitcher’s fastball. So, as the pitch is delivered, the hitter recognizes fastball and begins his swing to catch up to the higher velocity. However, because he is committed to the pitch, the hitter cannot make an adjustment and either misses the pitch or does not make quality contact.
As I said before, movement is a great attribute to have on a pitch, and you’ll find that pitchers who have a great change-up usually throw it with some movement. But deception is key. As long as the batter believes the pitch to be a fastball (even for a split second), then the pitch has done its job. Many believe that younger pitchers do not need a change-up, but an already decent pitcher who can develop a quality change-up can become dominating at any level. It will make your fastball and higher velocity pitches that much better. A change in velocity makes the batter uncomfortable because he cannot work on timing a consistent pitch speed.
Don’t take my word for it though. Just listen to what a Major League hitter has to say about it. Here’s a quote from Aaron Rowand in an article discussing the change-up. “When the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand looking like a fastball and the bottom drops out, it’s one of the toughest pitches to recognize and put a good swing on,” he said. “When it comes out of his hand, you are like ‘Fastball!’ but it dies on you. It’s the great equalizer.” Remember, that’s a hitter talking.