"It’s the second-best pitch in baseball after the fastball" said Braves catcher Gerald Laird, when talking about the changeup. The arm action is the same as a fastball, the seams come out looking the same, there’s not many release point clues that it’s coming, and then "the ball is just not there."
For the first extended period of time, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd feel comfortable with their changeups. The two starters — acquired by the Braves over the winter — had unconventional offseasons in which they made mechanical adjustments on their own, and both have similar mechanics that may have made it harder for them to develop the pitch before now. But both are trying something new this season.
These aren’t the dipping, diving, fading changeups that keep batters awake at night. Laird’s reasons that a change is so great doesn’t mention "movement." To some extent, all the change needs to do is look like a fastball and not be fast.
A big part of that outcome is the grip. Floyd has been toying with a split-finger and different grips to try and find something that worked. For Santana, it was only about the grip: "Before, I didn’t have the right grip, and I just tried different grips every year and it worked for a little bit and then I had to change the grip again." When told of Oakland pitcher Dan Straily‘s 17 different changeup grips, Santana laughed "At least I’m not the only one!"
That’s not a fancy split-finger grip or even your more standard circle-change grip. Just lots of fingers, lots of contact with the ball, and an over-the-top release that can fool the hitters.
Santana and Floyd have fairly classic release points, too. Perhaps there’s a link here. "Ideally you want to throw it just like a fastball and not manipulate it," Floyd said. "Some guys can, some guys fan it, some guys turn it over," he added, but said he couldn’t do that. Pointing to White Sox starter John Danks as having a great change, Floyd said that Danks "flies open and can really spin the ball, and can pronate really well."
Floyd’s new changeup grip:
Neither Santana nor Floyd are choosing to pronate their changeups, meaning they aren’t pulling towards the inside of their elbows or "closing the window shades" as some say. "You have to throw it like a fastball, that’s the main thing; don’t try to do anything — just like a fastball," said Santana while mimicking a straight fastball release with his arm.
Is it possible that they’ve had trouble finding great changeups because of their particular mechanics?
Though it’s really hard to find a link between collected release point data and changeup quality — everybody’s release point is relative to their height— we can look at some of the release angles for the best changes in the game. Kansas City’s Jason Vargas, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Danks sit atop the leaderboards for changeup pitch type value at FanGraphs. Below is a freeze frame of their changeups as they release them.
Maybe it’s more about "flying open" than arm angle — looking at the three on the left, you might see what Floyd is talking about in terms of the placement of their non-throwing shoulder upon the release of the pitch. Their non-pitching shoulder is more open than Floyd’s. If Floyd was specifically trying to "stay closed," perhaps it’s not surprising that he wasn’t getting the same movement as the top changeup artists. This might even have implications for finding the right grip for each pitcher — maybe some grips only work if you are comfortable opening up your lead shoulder.
But having a changeup they have confidence in — and one that the catcher has enough confidence to call, points out Laird — is a huge step for these two Braves. In their careers, lefties have hit for an OPS 82 points higher than righties against Santana, and 89 points higher for Floyd. Not surprising, given the platoon splits on most breaking pitches due to the fact those pitches break towards opposite-handed hitters. Now they both have a pitch that can break away from lefties.
These two found their grips on their own. They didn’t come recommended from a pitching coach. Santana was stuck in that qualifying offer purgatory, and Floyd was a free agent rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Neither had a team. Floyd said he was happy to get away from "hearing so many voices," and perhaps both pitchers benefited from listening to their own bodies and doing what felt natural. At least when it came to finding the right changeup grip.
The changeups probably won’t be as great, but there is a funny symmetry here. One of the best changeups of all time was found by a pitcher, just playing catch on his own in the Atlanta Braves outfield, as he reached down to grab a ball on the ground.