Jeff Pico, the pitching coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, has been emphasizing the changeup to all of his young arms throughout the organization. Starters in the organization are asked to throw 15-to-20% changeups, while relievers must throw at least 10%.
"It's been a focus. The coordinators and coaches are all pushing for a good changeup," confirmed catcher Tyson Van Winkle.
There are several reasons for this. The changeup allows starting pitchers to work deeper into games, not only because it puts less stress on an arm than any pitch besides the knuckleball, but also because it gives batters another look for the third time the pitcher goes through a lineup. For relievers, a changeup helps neutralize the platoon advantage; a right-handed pitcher's changeup can have tailing action away from left-handed hitters, or at the very least provide an alternative to the fastball when the pitcher is afraid to use a pitch that breaks in towards the batter.
Many of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball today owe a big portion of their success to the changeup. Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum are perennial Cy Young contenders thanks to their outstanding changeups. Trevor Hoffman has saved 601 major league games despite a mid-80s fastball because his changeup is so filthy. Daniel Hudson easily has the best changeup among Diamondbacks,, and he rode it to a 7-1 record and 1.69 ERA with Arizona.
"Changeups are a really big thing in baseball," concluded catcher Errol Hollinger. "A guy with a really good changeup is hard to hit."
There are several promising changeups in the farm system that could rival Hudson's in the coming years. Here are the top five:
1. RHP Trevor Harden
Trouble with the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow and a life-threatening case of appendicitis limited Harden to just two starts this year. But when healthy, there is no question that he throws the best changeup in the organization. In fact, he might throw the best two. Harden has a power changeup that acts like a splitter because of all of the late downward action that it has. He also throws a slower one that he commands a bit better and uses to either get ahead of hitters or induce weak contact early in the count. The latter pitch averages a whopping 10 miles per hour slower than his fastball, which tops out in the low-90s but usually sits in the upper-80s.
His changeups are made even more effective by a unique pause Harden uses in his delivery. Harden can only use that pause when no runners are on base, but when he does, it can disrupt a hitter's timing as much as the change of velocity does.
"A lot of righties don't throw righty-on-righty changeups if you have a slider. I like to, just because it's a good groundball pitch." --Harden
2. RHP Josh Collmenter
How can a pitcher succeed with a fastball that doesn't reach 90 mph and an inconsistent breaking ball? Josh Collmenter has used a deceptive delivery coupled with an outstanding changeup to frustrate hitters at every minor league level. In the Arizona Fall League, his fastball has ranged from 85-88 mph while his change has been anywhere between 75-77. Collmenter leans backward for his delivery, so that left-handers can't get both eyes on the ball early in the motion. As a result, his fastball/changeup combo is effective against both left- and right-handed hitters.
"The changeup is my go-to pitch. If I need an out, the changeup is always where I look." --Collmenter
3. LHP Patrick Corbin
The left-handed Corbin suppressed the batting average of right-handed hitters to a paltry .154 in his eight starts since joining the Diamondbacks organization. A big part of that is his palm change, which the ex-Angel throws from the exact same three-quarters arm slot as he does his fastball. Corbin also hides the ball well in his delivery, making it nearly impossible for hitters to pick up the change in grip. Once delivered, the pitch fades down and away from right-handers, almost teasing them. His command of the pitch is impressive as well.
"I really liked his change-up. I think he's got a plus change-up." --Minor League Pitching Coordinator Jeff Pico
4. LHP Dan Taylor
What is it with CMU pitchers and their changeups? Like Collmenter before him, Taylor was a mid-round pick out of Central Michigan University who only throws in the upper-80s but has always put up terrific numbers due in large part to his changeup. In 19 starts with the Rawhide, Taylor held right-handed hitters' batting averages 72 points lower than he did left-handers. Prior to that, the Jenison native cruised through the lower levels with his changeup, curveball, and fastball, all of which he can throw for strikes.
"Daniel Taylor had the best changeup on the staff, for sure." --South Bend Pitching Coach Wellington Cepeda
5. RHP Cesar Valdez
A couple of years ago, the changeup of Cesar Valdez would have ranked as the organization's best. But the new emphasis on the pitch in the organization combined with Valdez' inability to consistently pitch well above Double-A drops him to fifth in our rankings. Part of the problem with Valdez is that his fastball rarely touches 90 miles per hour, so his low-80s change generally sits only 4-7 mph slower than his primary offering. It wasn't a terribly effective weapon against left-handed hitters this year; Triple-A lefties hit .304 against Valdez, while big league left-handers hit him at a .351 clip.
That lack of success caused the D-backs to remove Valdez from their 40-man roster in September. No one claimed him off waivers, so Valdez remains a Diamondback for now. If he can command his sinking fastball and changeup a little better, Valdez should still be able to get enough ground balls to become a useful major league pitcher.
"He really does have a good changeup. He doesn't slow down his arm speed, and the ball just drops like a splitter." --Cepeda
Honorable Mention: RHP Scottie Allen
Allen first learned to throw changeup just after he turned 19 last summer. Despite the fact that it is a relatively new pitch for him and that Allen has three other quality pitches in his arsenal, the changeup has become the pitch that Allen is most comfortable with. The right-hander had a 2.43 ERA against lefites this year as opposed to a 6.45 mark against right-handers, although his batting average against was nearly equal for both. Being that he is such a young pitcher and that the changeup is such a new pitch for him, we didn't want to rank Allen's changeup ahead of some of the veterans who have established their offspeed stuff at higher levels. But Allen's change is one to watch in the future, for sure.
"Allen's done great with his changeup. He can throw that almost any time. He can keep people off his fastball because that changeup's so damn good." --South Bend Manager Mark Haley
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