(Photo by David Conde, Metsmerized Online)
Despite Syndergaard’s 98 mph fastball and his hook from hell, Diamond says that if the 21-year-old right-hander wants to make the jump from star prospect to star pitcher, he must add a changeup. “It’s the least attractive—but perhaps most important—part of any young starter’s development.”
Pitchers across baseball understand the significance of the changeup, the deceptive pitch that looks like a fastball coming out of a pitcher’s hand, but really is traveling anywhere from 10 to 20 mph slower. They recognize its transformative power, how it can elevate them from raw talents to elite major-leaguers. And yet, so many of them don’t start working seriously on their changeups until they reach the professional ranks.
“It’s not a pretty pitch,” said Frank Viola, the Mets’ Triple-A pitching coach and the man responsible for helping Syndergaard improve his changeup this season. “Who wants to throw a changeup?”
I doubt it was a coincidence when the Mets made the decision to promote Viola from pitching coach at Single-A Savannah all the way to Triple-A Las Vegas where he’ll help Syndergaard develop that changeup. Sweet Music of course once owned the best changeup in baseball and rode it to 176 wins and an American League Cy Young in 1988.
Diamond’s article reminded me of another piece I read on the changeup last season, by Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated, who discussed its impact on the game.
The most important pitch in baseball doesn’t break sharply on its way to the plate. It deliberately lacks eye-popping velocity. It can’t be effective with exclusive usage, as some have done with pitches that cut or knuckle. Its very name implies a need for contrast with a companion.
When the baseball emerges from the pitcher’s hand with backspin, the seams rapidly churn up from under the ball and over the top, the tell-tale sign of either the favored pitch of hitters, the fastball, or of its ultra-important sidekick, the changeup.
“Hitters, even if they’re sitting on [the changeup], they see that spin, and they’re like sharks in the water,” said Braves righthander Kris Medlen. “They smell blood. They see four-seam spin, and even if they’re sitting on a changeup, in the back of their head, they’re like, ‘Oooh, fastball.’”
While most pitchers previously threw the changeup against batters with the same handedness, former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson says the pitch is being used regardless of which side of the plate the batter hits these days and attributes it to an increase in video showing that the pitch could be effective to all hitters.
Among the ten best changeups in the game’s recent history, three of them are from former Mets; Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Johan Santana. All three absolutely dominated the game when they were in their prime and the change was a big reason why. Without it, their careers would have been quite different.
On June 1, 2012, when Johan pitched the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history, it was his signature changeup that made it all possible. Santana threw 38 of them in the game, 24 of them for strikes. They were responsible for nine of his 27 outs. Perhaps it was poetic that the final pitch of that fateful night was a 3-2 changeup to David Freese who flailed at it and gave Met fans the memory of a lifetime.
Velocity and power remain the game’s most prized attributes, writes Lemire. But in a league where most guys can throw the ball hard or slug the ball far, the changeup keeps them honest. It’s the enforcer, albeit one with more bite than brawn.
The changeup has had a great impact on Mets history and we’ve only just touched the surface. The best may be yet to come.