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Teaching The Modern Changeup

The changeup is one of the least sensationalized pitch in baseball, but perhaps one of the most important to develop.

This part 3 of a 3 part series on the “modern” change up.  Here in part three, the goal is to explain how pitchers should best use their shiny new changeup, because executing the pitch in a game is ultimately the only thing that matters.  If you haven’t read the previous posts, click below to get started:

  • The Modern Change Up: In part one, we discussed the theory of the changeup, and how a pitcher can reliably remove speed, apply spin, and produce a consistent changeup that sinks, runs, and deceives a hitter.
  • How to Throw a Changeup: In part two, I explained my method of teaching it, with cues for both the coach and the pitcher.

 

It’s Not One Changeup, It’s Four

The biggest thing to understand about the modern changeup is that its action and effect varies depending on where it’s thrown. Let’s talk about five common locations into which it will be thrown. But first, I want to explain the terminology of arm-side versus glove-side, which describes pitch location without needing to know the handedness of the hitter

arm side glove side baseball pitcher

Thrown Glove-side: OK version; flattens out a bit and tends to be a little harder

The pitcher is forced to hold onto the pitch just a little longer to locate it on the glove-side of the plate, which means he can’t roll his hand inward quite as well; this results in a slightly harder changeup with less movement. A pitcher can throw this one, but it makes less sense when other locations will result in better action and deception.

 

Thrown Middle: Good version; will both sink and run, with correct speed differential

Thrown to the middle, it’s easy to pronate in on the pitch to get excellent sink, run and speed change. This was my favorite location to throw it because it would induce swings, and I could just let the pitch rip. Depending on how low in the zone I’d throw it, results would usually be a weak ground ball or swing and miss. The heavy downward action is a major failsafe, and pitchers don’t need to fear throwing it down the middle.

 

Thrown Arm-side: Best version; has the most sink, run and speed differential

The arm-side version is dynamite. Start it on the outer half or outer third, and it will sink below the strike zone on or off the corner of the plate. When a pitcher gets ahead in the count and has this in his arsenal, he can finish opposite-handed hitters off with ease, and bury a changeup down and in to strike out same-side hitters just as well. I punched out plenty of righties with righty-righty changeups; at worse, if they make contact, they’ll hook it foul.

 

Arm-Side Hanger: when a pitcher flies open and gets his hand too much on the side of it.

Pitchers are afraid of hanging changeups, and for good reason – they come in as slow fastballs at the belt, and fly out of the park in a hurry. But, when they learn to pronate their changeup, a good amount of sidespin will be applied even to hangers. The result is that many hanging changeups will “hunt” a same-side hitter. For me as a righty, I would drag occasionally through a changeup and watch as it bore hard into a righty’s hands, basically chasing him as he started his swing; they rarely could much of anything but try to get out of the way. In a sense, applying pronation to the changeup is a failsafe when a pitcher invariably pushes a few each game.

The GIF above is a great example of an arm-side hanging changeup that, if it didn’t have a lot of side-spin, might have lingered in the strike zone. It’s not a good pitch, but it keeps itself out of trouble.

 

Middle Hanger: you’re screwed just like any other “hung” off-speed pitch

When thrown at mid-thigh or above, out on the middle of the plate, speed-differential can’t save a pitcher, as hitters can reset themselves. If two changeups have the same action and speed differential, the one up in the zone will be easier for a hitter to re-adjust to despite being fooled early in the pitch’s flight.

The challenge is learning how to locate the pitch, which is more difficult because of the heavy movement. To throw the modern changeup for strikes, the pitcher needs to learn to use his eyes as a targeting system.

 

Focal Point: Differentiating Starting And Ending Point  

The catcher calls for a four-seamer. You lock your eyes on the mitt, kick and deliver; the pitch flies straight, and you hit you your spot. Next, he calls a changeup. You take your new changeup grip, lock eyes on the mitt then kick and deliver. You miss your spot down and arm-side by eight inches in both directions. What just happened?

Even at high levels, many pitchers don’t understand the concept of the starting point for breaking pitches. The starting and ending point for a slider are different. If a pitcher stares down the mitt and throws his slider for it, he either misses his spot by exactly the amount the slider breaks, or subconsciously starts the pitch at a higher, more lateral location to account for the break. Just like in golf – if you have a slice you can’t fix, just aim a little more to the side so your ball slices into the fairway, as opposed to into the rough. Right? Right.

As pitchers, we need to know our pitch will end up the in place we intend; for that reason, we musts pick a focal point that that represents the starting point on the trajectory that will result in our desired spot.  So, if you throw a 12-6 curveball that breaks exactly eight inches, and you want to throw it at the knee cap, the focal point must be eight inches above the knee cap.

Using focal points to account for break is the only reliable method of controlling breaking pitches, and the modern changeup. Because the changeup you’ve learned in this article series will have a consistent action – typically an equal combination of arm-side run and sink – the pitcher must learn where to start the pitch so it sinks and runs into the catcher’s mitt. Otherwise, every changeup that starts for the catcher’s mitt will sink out of the strike zone, and it will be tough to throw for strikes.

Three Key Steps: 

  1. Learn and develop the pitch until it has consistent, dependable action.
  2. Figure out where you should start the pitch so that its typical action will cause it to hit your desired spot.
  3. Work hard with your eyes – many pitches take their eyes off their target, which makes establishing a strong focal point connection difficult.

 

Throw As Many Changeups As Possible

Even if a pitcher today is striking out the world with just a fastball-slider combination, that will one day run out as he ascends the ranks of baseball. Learning a changeup today is an investment in avoiding that slump in the future, when the level of play catches up to an overachiever. Any new pitch takes at least a year to master, so start now.

The problem, though, is that playing changeup catch with your buddies isn’t, well, fun. Young pitchers like watching their curveball break, slider slide, and their brutal knuckleball occasionally knuckle. No pitcher has ever said, Hey! Let’s see who can throw the most deceptive changeup! Best out of ten!

The changeup will be the pitch that you need to get opposite-handed hitters out in a jam, the pitch you go to when a hitter picks up your breaking ball well, and when you need to induce that double-play ball with the bases loaded. It will be the pitch that makes everything else you throw better.

And, if a pitcher wants any chance at starting in college or pro baseball, a changeup is a requirement. The only guys who don’t throw changeups are select reliever specialists and the hardest-throwing, back-of-the-bullpen type pitchers who see more risk than reward in throwing 90mph changeups when the game is on the line.

 

Take Home

The changeup is evolving, and advanced metrics are showing us that movement and speed-change is superior to speed change alone. Learning a changeup with advanced qualities – more than just speed change– gives a pitcher a chance to be on the leading edge of advances in baseball.

 

10 Recommendations to Reduce Youth Throwing Injuries

For anyone who is interested in youth baseball or softball, I urge you to pay attention to some of the data regarding youth throwing injuries.  Some of the numbers are staggering. I would like to make this entire post HIGHLY based in the available research and evidence – not my opinions.

I am basically summarizing what has been researched and published in this post. Of course, I will elaborate on a few things along the way, but I will mostly let the data speak for itself.
Let’s start with a little background:

  • Baseball/softball remains one of the safest overall sports to play
  • Nevertheless, traumatic and overuse injuries occur regularly
  • More and more young boys and girls are playing baseball/softball every year
  • Despite pitch count rules, the incidence of youth injuries and surgeries is rising
  • Adult throwing injuries are being attributed to injuries suffered as youths

 

The Rise of Youth Baseball Injuries

There is no denying the youth baseball injuries are rising. Below, I have summarized several research publications.  During the 5 years from 1994-1999 compared the 5 years from 2000-2004:

  • 4x increase in elbow surgeries in college baseball pitchers
  • 6x increase in elbow surgeries in high school baseball pitchers
  • 5x increase for injury with pitching >8 months/year
  • 4x increase for injury with pitching >80 pitches/game
  • 2.5x increase for injury with throwing >85 MPH
  • 36x increase for injury when throwing with arm fatigue
  • Injured pitchers threw 34 warm-up pitches vs. 26 warm-up pitches of un-injured pitchers
  • Injured pitchers threw in 4 showcases vs. 1 showcase of un-injured
  • Injured pitchers were 4cm taller and 5kg heavier

In 2006, 450 players (ages 7-11) without elbow pain pre-season:

  • 30.5% reported elbow pain by end of season…of those, 72.3% had physical exam deficits…of those, 81.4% had radiographic abnormalities. This basically means kids with elbow pain actually had pathology, not just soreness!
  • “Little League Elbow” – epicondylitis, apophysitis, physeal plate (growth plate) fracture, osteochondritis dissecans occurs in 20-40% of school aged pitchers

A 10-year study (from 1999-2008) 481 pitchers (ages 9-14) with an elbow injury defined as surgery or retirement due to pain:

  • Pitching >100 innings/year = 3.5x more likely to be injured
  • Playing pitcher and catcher – 2.5x more likely to be injured

A 2015 study on 420 healthy pitchers:

  • 31% had a pitching-related injury (shoulder and elbow)…of those, 3 variables could predict injury 77% of the time
  • Pitcher height
  • Pitching velocity
  • Pitching for more than one team

A 10-year study from 2002-2011 in New York State:

  • There was a significant increase in the number of UCL reconstructions by 193%
  • Becoming more common in adolescent athletes
  • The average age at surgery going down = more kids are having Tommy John surgery at an earlier age

Dr. James Andrews – arguably the most prolific orthopedic surgeon of this era – has presented numerous times throughout his career about his concerns regarding youth injuries and increasing awareness…here is a graph showing the percentage of Tommy John’s surgeries he completes each year on youth (compared to collegiate and professional athletes):

Recommendations – Pitch Count & Playing Time

Through the combined efforts of many people, including Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig of ASMI, organizations like Little League Baseball and USA Baseball have adopted rules to help reduce overuse.

Our understanding the stresses placed on the arm, especially while pitching, has led to the institution of rules controlling the quantity of pitches thrown in youth baseball and established rest periods between pitching assignments.

Little League Baseball & USA Baseball have implemented the following pitch count recommendations:

  • 9-10 years of age: 1000/season, 2000/year
  • 11-12 years of age: 1000/season, 3000/year
  • 13-14 years of age: 1000/season, 3000/year
  • Pitcher-to-catcher ban: any pitcher who throws >41 pitches may not play catcher that day

Recommendations – Throwing Guidelines

In addition to the above pitch count rules, several other guidelines can be implemented based on what we have learned through scientific research:

  • Avoid pitching with arm fatigue!
  • Avoid pitching with arm pain
  • Pitch less than 80 pitches/game at ALL adolescent levels
  • Pitch less than 8months out of the year
  • Pitch less than 100 innings in games in any calendar year.
  • Pitch less than 2000-3000 pitches in competition/year (pending age)

The Ongoing Problem

Travel ball does not fall under the umbrella of Little League and USA Baseball and is often under the sole direction of the team and coach. This had led to continued overuse despite the best efforts of the medical community.

A recent national survey of 750 pitchers (ages 9-18) shows:

  • 45% of youth pitchers pitched without a pitch count
  • 43.5% pitched on consecutive days
  • 30.7% pitched on multiple teams
  • 19.0% pitched multiple games in one day
  • 13.2% pitched year-round
  • ~1/3 having a pitching-related injury in the past 12 months,
  • 7/10 reported significant arm tiredness in the past 12 months
  • Nearly 40 percent reported significant arm pain within the past 12 months.
    • Arm Tiredness = 7.8x more likely to have an injury

 

The Impact of Long Toss and Pitch Type

In addition to simple overuse in throwing volume, there are other factors to consider such as long toss and pitch type.

What About Long Toss?

  • 2011 Study = Hard, flat-ground throws have biomechanical patterns similar to pitching; however, maximum distance throws produce increased torque & changes kinematics. Therefore, use caution with use of these longer throws in rehab & training

What about flat ground vs. mound pitching?

  • 2013 Study = “There is NO difference in kinematics or kinetics in pitching from a mound versus flat-ground conditions in adolescent baseball pitchers.”

What about curveballs, sliders, fastballs & change ups?

  • In multiple studies (2002, 2006, 2008, 2011) = conflicting information…
  • Most indicate fastballs have a greater overall torque on the shoulder and elbow than any other pitch
  • However, what has been shown in some studies curveballs elicit more force through the shoulder whereas the slider places greater forces through the elbow
  • The changeup is consistently shown in virtually all research to have the least amount of forces (shoulder AND elbow)
  • None of the players in several studies threw anything but fastballs or changeups, so the information is lacking

How to Prevent Youth Throwing Injuries

There is overwhelming evidence that volume and overuse are single-handedly a major contributing factor to injuries in youth baseball. This is hard to deny. Throwing with pain and/or fatigue is the fastest way to be injured. You must listen to your body. Injuries are not always seen “in season” but the cumulative effects can negatively affect the long-term health of a pitcher. Pitch type is not as big of a concern; however, most youth do not have the appropriate control, body awareness/motor control and mechanics to throw efficiently and effectively, therefore breaking pitches are underemphasized early in youth pitching.

10 Recommendations to Reduce Youth Throwing Injuries

  1. Watch and respond to signs of fatigue:
    • Decreased ball velocity, decreased accuracy, upright trunk during pitching, dropped elbow during pitching, or increased time between pitches). If a youth pitcher complains of fatigue or looks fatigued, rest is recommended
  2. No overhead throwing of any kind for at least 2-3 months per year. No competitive baseball pitching for at least 4 months per year
  3. Follow limits for pitch counts and days rest
  4. Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
  5. Learn good throwing mechanics as soon as possible. The first steps should be (1) basic throwing, (2) fastball pitching, (3) changeup pitching…breaking pitches are not fundamental and youth players need foundation first
  6. A pitcher should not also be a catcher for his team. The pitcher-catcher combination results in many throws and may increase the risk of injury
  7. If a pitcher complains of pain in his elbow or shoulder, discontinue pitching until evaluated by a sports medicine physician
  8. Avoid using radar guns and emphasizing velocity with youth throwers
  9. Minimize showcases, especially in the “off” season
  10. Inspire youth pitchers to have fun playing baseball and other sports. Participation and enjoyment of various physical activities will increase the youth’s athleticism and interest in sports

 

Closing Thoughts

I threw a lot of information at you. But you can use this as a resource in the future. I want everyone to understand NONE of these are rules…just guidelines/suggestions.

But I am not talking about my opinion or something I saw or heard or know a guy who said something I thought made sense. It is research. Actual evidence. Measurable data.

I am not here to start a debate or judge anyone for anything. I am simply packaging the best information I could gather and put it all in one place.

My final thought is this: I love baseball. I want you and your children to play baseball or softball. Let your kids be a part of arguably the greatest sport on the planet – a sport that has some of the best teaching lessons and analogies for life. Work hard to get better and be better. Strive for improvements. Just watch volume and be smart about things. Have a great season!

 

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References:

  1. American Academy of Pediatricians. Policy statement: baseball and softball. Pediatrics. 2012;129:e842-e856.
  2. American Sports Medicine Institute. Position statement for youth baseball pitchers. http://www.asmi.org/asmiweb/position_statement.htm Accessed March 10, 2016.
  3. Cain EL Jr, Andrews JR, Dugas JR, et al. Outcome of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction of the elbow in 1281 athletes: results in 743 athletes with minimum 2-year follow-up. Am J Sports Med. 2010;38:2426-2434.
  4. Chen FS, Rokito AS, Jobe FW. Medial elbow problems in the over head throwing athlete. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2001;9:99-113.
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  9. Fleisig GS, Bolt B, Fortenbaugh D, Wilk KE, Andrews JR. Biomechanical comparison of baseball pitching and long-toss: implications for training and rehabilitation. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011;41:296-303.
  10. Fleisig GS, Kingsley DS, Loftice JW, et al. Kinetic comparison among the fastball, curveball, change-up, and slider in collegiate baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2006;34:423-430.
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  14. Little League Baseball. Protecting young pitching arms. http://www.littleleague.org/Assets/old_assets/media/pitch_count_publication_2008.pdf. Accessed February 12, 2016.
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  18. Stop Sports Injuries. http://www.stopsportsinjuries.org. Accessed on March 19, 2014
  19. https://mikereinold.com/tag/weighted-ball-program. Accessed on March 10, 2016
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