Pitches and Stuff: The Changeup

Does a fastball really rise? How does the pitcher’s grip lead to movement? Baseball is packed with buzzwords that experts use imprecisely. In this series of articles, Mike Richmond explores the baseball’s motion as it travels through the air: How does it behave and what can a pitcher do to control it?

This time, we are going to look at the changeup. Pitches can be divided into two great families based on their spin – the fastballs and the curveballs. The changeup belongs to the first clan: It is a close relative of the basic fastball. We will see how it differs from its cousin in its journey from the pitcher’s hand to the plate, and illustrate its properties with examples from three of the best changeup artists in the game. If you want a more technical description of this topic, consider reading the effect of air on baseball pitches.

Is a Changeup Just a Slower Fastball?

The answer is ‒ mostly ‒ yes. Just look at the name of the pitch: Change implies a deviation from the norm. A batter will use the most common pitch, the fastball, to set his timing so that his swing brings the bat across the plate just as the ball reaches him. But if he applies this same timing to a changeup, his bat will cross the plate long before the ball does. The figure below shows two pitches thrown with the same release point and initial direction; small dots indicate the location of each pitch at intervals of 0.01 seconds, with a circle to highlight every 0.10 seconds. The main reason a changeup fools batters is by making them swing too soon.

However, there is a second reason that a changeup can be an effective pitch. As you can see in the figure above, a changeup will not only cross the plate later than a fastball, but lower as well. The extra time it takes the changeup to reach the plate causes it to fall further toward the ground by the time it reaches the plate. Even if a batter manages to hold back and start his swing at the right time, his bat will probably cross the plate far above the ball. It will be about eight inches too high, unless he can make an adjustment.

Enhancing the Changeup

Both pitches spin in the same direction (back over the top, aka “backspin”) and at the same rate (2,200 RPM). The fact that a changeup has backspin is what puts it into the fastball family.

As you may recall, backspin imparts an upward force – called the Magnus force – on a moving object. The faster it spins, the larger this force. A ball spinning at 2,200 revolutions per minute experiences a considerable amount of lift. If a pitcher could give a changeup a smaller rate of spin, he would decrease the Magnus force on it, causing it to fall even faster. How much of a difference might this make by the time the ball reaches the plate?

The figure below compares the basic fastball to a basic changeup, spinning at the same rate as the fastball, and an enhanced changeup, spinning at a much slower rate. At first glance, the difference in height between the two changeups appears small: only about 2.6 inches as they reach the plate. It certainly is much smaller than the eight inches or so which separate them both from the fastball. 

On second thought, this little extra drop could be very significant. Rule 1.10(a) in the American League regulations states:

The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part …

Even if the batter recognizes the changeup as it comes in, delays his swing appropriately and lowers the bat by eight inches, he will still fail to make solid (if any) contact with the slowly-spinning version. A pitcher who can not only change speeds, but also change spin rates, will force batters to make additional adjustments.

How to Throw a Changeup

We now know what a changeup is: a ball travelling slower than a fastball, spinning in the same way (backspin), sometimes at a slower rate. How does a pitcher give a baseball these properties and how can he do so while convincing the batter that the pitch is an ordinary fastball?

One can think of a pitcher’s body as a sort of machine. Starting at the shoulder, the mechanism has three parts: arm, wrist, and hand. When one throws a basic fastball, these three parts work together to accelerate the ball forward: The arm provides most of the velocity, the wrist pulls the hand forward, bending the fingers back as the ball rolls along them, and then the fingers snap forward like a rubber band as they release the ball. This coordinated effort is what makes a fastball fast.

If the pitcher modified the motion of his arm in order to throw a changeup, the batter would notice. Therefore, the difference must come from one of the other, less noticeable parts of the machine: in this case, the hand.

One way to prevent the fingers from bending back and then snapping the ball forward is to keep the ball away from the fingers by holding it in the palm. This is the palmball version of changeup.

A second way to reduce the effect of the fingers is to prevent the ball from rolling outward along them. The farther away from the palm ball is released, the larger the leverage of the fingers and hence the force applied to the ball. One of the reasons Pedro Martinez could reach 97-mph early in his career was the extraordinary length of his fingers.

If one stuffs the ball between two fingers, it will be prevented from rolling out toward the fingertips as it is released; instead, the ball will slip out just a short distance away from the palm. This variety is sometimes called a split-finger fastball, or splitter for short.

A third option is called the circle change based on the appearance of the thumb and index finger. The pitcher grips the ball with his thumb and index finger making a circle on one side, the middle and ring fingers over the top, and the pinky on the other side. Because only two fingers act to snap the ball forward instead of four, the ball leaves the hand moving more slowly than in a basic fastball. However, since this grip does allow two fingers to push the ball fully, the circle change gives the ball more speed (and spin) than the others.

Whether one chooses the palmball, the splitter, or the circle change, the key is to reduce the impact of the fingers on the pitch. The difference between a fastball and a changeup thrown with exactly the same arm motion can be as large as 12-15 miles per hour.

Three Top-notch Changeup Artists

Let us take a look at some real life examples of these three pitch types by examining three pitchers known for their devastating changeups: two relievers and a starter.

The Palmball

First up is Trevor Hoffman. Over the course of an 18-year career, he struck out more than a batter per inning and piled up 601 saves, using primarily a fastball and a palmball changeup. In the figure below, you can see the pitches he threw in two consecutive games in 2008. 

In this diagram, speed is shown on the vertical axis: that cluster of symbols near the top of the graph are fastballs averaging about 86-mph. The cluster near the bottom are changeups. The 12-mph difference between the two is one of the reasons Hoffman was so effective: The average MLB pitcher’s changeup in 2014 was only 7.5-mph slower than his fastball. The PITCHf/x data also shows another difference between the pitches: The fastball rotated at about 2,500 RPM, but the changeup at only 1,200 RPM. That slower spin caused Hoffman’s changeup to drop an extra few inches as it reached the plate.

The horizontal axis on this diagram indicates the direction of spin on the ball. Zero degrees (or 360 degrees) means pure topspin; an overhand curve which breaks straight down. 180 degrees means pure backspin: a basic fastball. The diagram is colored to separate pitches which spin more like fastballs (light green) or more like curveballs (light blue). The spin axis values of almost exactly 180 degrees reveal that Hoffman threw all of his pitches with an over-the-top arm angle. In these two games, Hoffman served up almost nothing but fastballs and changeups, throwing just two sliders.

The Split-finger

Hoffman’s two-pitch repertoire closely resembles that of our next changeup specialist: Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara. Uehara holds the ball with a split-finger grip, rather than the palmball favored by Hoffman, but the results are just as effective. Shown below are the pitches he tossed in a pair of games late in the 2013 season, in the midst of his streak of 37 scoreless innings.

The difference in speed between Uehara’s fastballs and changeups is only 8-mph, significantly less than Hoffman’s 12-mph. On the other hand, since Uehara’s fastball travels 5-mph faster, it gives batters less time to identify the pitch before they must react. Like Hoffman, Uehara rotates his changeups much more slowly than his fastballs: 1,500 vs. 2,300 RPM.

Unlike Hoffman, however, Uehara does not give his pitches nearly pure backspin; his changeups are tilted by some 40 degrees relative to his fastballs. As we will discuss in a future installment in this series, this tilt causes the changeups to break toward first base (away from right-handed batters, inside to left-handed batters) as well as down. Not only do Uehara’s splitters arrive later than batters expect, and lower than they expect – they also cross the plate in the wrong place.

The Circle Change

Our final example is starter Jason Vargas of the Kansas City Royals, a practitioner of the circle change. A quick glance at his speed/spin diagram tells us that his offering is quite unlike those we described above.

First, the spin axis of his fastballs and changeups is less than 180 degrees, because he throws them with his left hand (the others are both right-handers). Second, the difference in speed between his fastball and changeup clusters is only 5- or 6-mph, about half that of Hoffman’s. Unlike Uehara, Vargas does not tilt his changeups much relative to his fastballs. Finally, the group of pitches at 75-mph with topspin reveals that Vargas frequently throws a curveball. 

Not shown in the diagram, but clearly present in the PITCHf/x data, is one more difference: Vargas’s changeup spins at just about the same rate as his fastball, around 2,100 RPM.

Despite the seemingly small differences in speed and spin for Vargas’s changeup, some have argued that it is one of the best in the game.

The changeup can be a very effective pitch no matter how you grip it. As long as the arm motion is the same, but the speed is not the same, as that of a fastball, batters will start swinging too early and end up looking silly.


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