Why Change?

During the SNY broadcast last night, Ron Darling brought up the fact that Major League teams have a “systematic way” in spring training of deciding that every one of their young pitchers throw a good changeup. He added that he never was able to throw a good changeup, and therefore “might have fallen by the wayside” — and suggested that pitchers should work on the pitches they already have.

Interesting to hear this from Ron, who was quite successful because of changing speeds — though, instead of using a straight change, used instead a forkball and an overhand curve.

On the one hand, I agree that it is important for young pitchers to work on their current pitches — the idea being that one can improve more quickly by focusing on strengths rather than spending time bridging the gap between strengths and weaknesses. However, I’m 100% behind the idea of forcing youngsters to work on a change-up in this day and age — mainly because so few of them have an offspeed pitch.

In Ron’s day, pitchers were more complete with their repertoire — if they didn’t throw a change, they threw the forkball or a palmball or “foshball” or some other variation of a changeup. Further, while the slider was prevalent, many more pitchers threw an overhand curveball back then than they do now. So back then, it wasn’t as vital to teach a kid to change speeds — he already had a pitch that was significantly slower than his fastball. Today, however, we see a number of “shortcut” pitchers — guys who have a blazing fastball and mix it with a cutter or a slider, but have no curve nor change.

Mike Pelfrey is an ideal example of a shortcut pitcher — someone who is force-fed to the bigs by focusing on his main strength, and adding the easiest pitch to develop quickly (a slider). This strategy gets batters to swing and miss over the short term, but eventually they catch on — see: Jorge Sosa. The most successful pitchers of this and every other era were those who threw at more than one speed.

Yesterday’s game was a good example of how changing speeds leads to success. Mike Pelfrey was pounding the bottom part of the strike zone with his fastball, but was able to get strikeouts because he was mixing in a slider that often was being used as a change-up — I’m talking about the occasions that it was thrown at 84-85 MPH, or about 8 MPH slower than his 92-93 MPH fastball. Pelfrey turned Chase Utley into a pretzel on a strike three slider early in the game not because of the movement of the pitch but because of the slower speed; Utley had been “sitting on” or timing his fastball.

Hopefully, Big Pelf can keep his slider in that 84-85 range while also keeping the fastball around 93 MPH, because a pitcher needs to have around 7-10 MPH difference to keep batters off balance. The only thing I don’t like about the strategy of using the slider as a change of pace is that it flattens — and fattens — when thrown as a strike (the slider is meant to be thrown off the plate, out of the strike zone). To see an example, simply watch Jorge Sosa … he’ll serve up a nice flat fat one for the fences fairly frequently.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.