In part one of this series on the changeup, we discussed the “modern changeup,” a version of the changeup that is typified by heavy sink and run that is thrown by an increasing number of successful Major Leaguers.
Here in part two, I’m going to provide step-by-step instructions to learn, and teach, the pitch that I believe will be the predominant version of the changeup in the future.
Step 1: Explain the Grip, Hand Action, and Theory
Here’s what you need to know:
The Modern Changeup Grip
- I teach a “hook ‘em horns” grip – similar to a circle change but with no circle
- The key is having the thumb on the bottom of the ball. This is CRUCIAL.
- Pressure must be from the thumb to the bottom crease of the middle fingers
- Ball is held as loosely as possible with no fingertip pressure
The Hand Action
The hand action of the pitch is also different, here is what I focus on:
- Slightly early pronation (pouring out a can of soda)
- The ball will release off the inner edge of the middle finger
- “Paint brush” type finish
You should be able to tell a lot about your spin based on the flight of the ball:
- Correct: diagonal spin that creates one thick, bright red seam spinning at 2-8 orientation for righties, or 10-4 for lefties
- Flat: it will fly straight and be a little too hard; will look like a two-seam fastball, with parallel “railroad track” seams
- Cut: the ball will cut (move to the glove side), often with what looks like railroad track spin.
In regard to the spin, you are looking for:
- 10% total speed reduction. For a 60mph pitcher, this means 53-55mph, on average.
- 5% comes from the grip – if thrown flat, the pitch will be only 5% slower.
- 5% comes from the hand action. Channeling arm speed over and inward on the ball converts arm speed into spin, which reduces velocity just like a breaking ball.
That’s it. Teach the pitcher how to hold the pitch, what his hand is supposed to do, and how the pitch is supposed to spin.
Now that you understand the basics. Here is a detailed video explaining even more:
Step 2: Identify Mechanical Flaws That Preclude Good Changeups
Now that you know how to throw the modern changeup, we next need to understand some of the flaws that can occur.
But first, we need to get on the same page: the goal is for the hand to pronate inward on the ball just before release. There are numerous mechanical flaws that will prevent this from happening, or make it overly difficult, including:
- Flying open with the front side (the hips rotating toward the catcher before foot strike). The hand tends to move to the “cut” side of the ball when the front side opens too early.
- Striding too open or too closed – either one makes it more difficult to deliver the chest and hand toward the plate, creating a more out-in-front extension.
- Rotating in place (staying too tall) – pitchers apply better spin to their changeup with greater extension. Reaching farther “through” the pitch helps apply more spin on the inner edge as the hand pronates.
- A soft, sinking front leg – the front leg needs to brace and help deliver the upper body forward, creating greater extension at release and allowing the pitcher to get both on the inside and on top of the baseball.
- Sideways bending – the hand will turn the wrong way, again to the “cut” side of the ball with side bend. Pitchers tend to side-bend when they stride too far across their body, or their hips aren’t opening properly.
- “Late” arm timing – good arm timing means the throwing forearm is somewhere between 10 and 11 o’clock (depending on which way the clock is) when the stride foot contacts the ground. Arms that are late – 9 o’clock or lower – force the hand to catch up later, and it can’t; the hand won’t make it to the inside of the pitch by “go time.” Pitchers with late timing usually throw cutting or flat changeups, which are too hard and have no useful movement.
These mechanical flaws will make it difficult to teach a good changeup, so a holistic view is necessary; we need to teach good pitching mechanics as a prerequisite to throwing a good changeup. But, since all of it will likely be a work in progress with amateur pitchers, the strategy to improve both at the same time.
Step 3: The Hand Is The Variable Of Interest
To start, we first try to isolate hand position, so we can start teaching feel of good vs. bad changeups, without running into difficulty in pitchers with problematic mechanics (discussed above). Then, as the pitcher develops feel for the pitch, we slowly re-introduce his full mechanics.
Starting Drill: Knee or Standing Changeups at 25-30ft
We use this position to isolate as many variables as possible. By preventing the lower body from interacting with the upper body, we keep everything simple – the focus is on:
- Closing his upper body to his target
- Pointing his front shoulder to his target
- Giving his arm time to cycle up to the “top,” preventing late timing
- Reaching out with the pitch
- Finishing thumb down with the throwing hand
- And tucking the glove arm compactly by his side
All of the above are valuable mechanical concepts in addition to helping build a compact, simple upper body rotation that delivers repeatable changeups.
The Coach’s Job:
- Give feedback on spin on nearly every throw.
- Force them to execute the mechanics of the drill perfectly.
- Graduate the pitcher to a progression drill only when most changeups have correct spin.
We’ll make typically 20-40 throws like this, and the pitcher graduates to progression 1 when he shows me correct spin on 4 out of every 5 throws.
Progression 1: Hips-Square Changeups at 40 feet
In this drill, we put the pitcher in a more athletic position while still not allowing hip rotation. This helps to keep the arm action in two-dimensions (forward and back only) and teaches them how to separate the hips from the shoulders.
All the mechanical action-items are the same as in the knee changeups – point the glove arm, get closed, tuck the glove, and finish thumb-down. Separating the hips and shoulders should happen as well, which really just means closing off while keeping the lower body still.
The Coach’s Job:
- Continue to give mechanical and spin feedback on nearly every throw
- Explain how, when the drill mechanics are done wrong, changeup spin changes
Note: This is important, because pitchers will have more freedom to mess this drill up than in the previous
- Move to progression 2 only when 4 out of every 5 throws have correct spin
Progression 2: Rocker Drill Changeups at 50 feet
The rocker drill allows the hips to pivot naturally, which, in turn, allows the pitcher to go back to a more three-dimensional arm action, which can allow mechanical flaws to come back into play. But, this drill is the first crucial gap between simply isolating the hand position that teaches feel of the pitch, with integrating that feel into how a pitcher normally throws.
Changeup spin will break down here, as speed will make it more difficult to continue to feel correct hand position.
Continued Progress & Coaching
The rocker drill is the key stepping stone – once a pitcher can throw most of his changeups correctly from the rocker, he’s set to throw it from his delivery. The task, then, is gradually increasing velocity while maintaining compliance. As velocity increases, the percentage of correct changeups will decrease.
The Coach’s Job
The battle is for the pitcher to master the pitch at a lower velocity before moving up – otherwise, the feel of the pitch won’t be there. But, most pitchers like to throw too hard too often, and they thusly fail to learn the pitch. From my experience, this is what a beginner, who has gotten the feel at slow speed, looks like:
- 100% correct changeups at 30 feet (standing drill)
- 80% correct at 40 feet (hips-square drill)
- 60% correct at 50 feet (rocker drill)
- 50% correct at 55 feet at 50% effort (full windup)
- 30% correct at 55 feet at 60% effort (full windup)
- 20-25% correct at 55 feet at 75% effort (full windup)
- 0% correct at full speed from their windup
The goal is to keep the pitcher in the 60% or above range – where there are enough good changeups and bad ones, where he can feel the difference between the two while still finding success more often than not. In the above example, I’d keep the pitcher working mostly on hips-square and rocker changeups until he was closer to 75% correct at the rocker drill. Then, we’d move on. The percentages used above are a good way of quantifying what we’re looking for: a benchmark for progressing a pitcher.
As the pitcher is released into the wild, so to speak, the coach must keep him on track, which means the following:
- Forcing him to throw at lower velocities when he can’t throw the majority of changeups correctly
- Constantly giving spin feedback – Good! No, that one cut; That one was flat
- Giving mechanical feedback where necessary – this is often the more difficult correction to identify, and for the pitcher to make, but mechanics are a precursor to delivering the hand on time to get into the correct position to apply the spin we want.=
Teaching the Changeup Isn’t Hard
Teaching a changeup isn’t hard, if we know what we’re looking for. It’s easy to teach when the changeup has a defined spin and set of characteristics. When we’re guessing which grip might work best, and guessing how we’re going to remove speed from the ball, then it becomes a muddy, difficult task.
Stay tuned for part three, in which I’ll explain how we pitch with this changeup, compared to others. The skill of the operator dictates the usefulness of the tool.