The Mental Side Of The Change Up
“Our “BP” pitcher used to tell us that a change-up was coming and it would still dominate us”
Jim Vatcher, Former Major Leaguer, San Diego Padres
It’s very satisfying to throw a change-up down the middle of the plate and know that the hitter is convinced that a fastball is coming. Trevor Hoffman, Keith Foulke, Eric Gagne, Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez are part of a handful of pitchers that routinely get to experience this feeling. Unfortunately, most other pitchers have to deal with the frustrations of their change-up being consistently inconsistent. This is rather puzzling when you consider how long this pitch has been around and how much impact it could have on a pitchers career.
With that said, it amazes me how often I see pitchers alter their mechanics when throwing their change-up. “Something” changes in their body language from one pitch to the next. It’s as if there are two different sets of mechanics: one for the fastball and one for the change-up. The net result is that the pitcher will manipulate his arm, his body or his release point to slow the ball down.
These physical breakdowns are common and have traditionally been “fixed” through mechanical adjustments (ie speed up your arm). Though these modifications are sound in theory the reality is that these adjustments are dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. That’s because mechanical flaws don’t initiate the problem with the change up -- they are a by-product of it. This is why many pitchers, who have been given sound, “technical” advice for several years have a hard time making a lasting adjustment. As you will see, it is the “mental mechanics” that are creating these flaws.
Breaking Through The Mental Barrier: A 3-Step Process
Ironically, the mind is way ahead of us. Subconsciously, it has created these mechanical flaws because it knows that if something isn’t altered the pitch will go too hard. If a pitcher knows that his fastball mechanics will cause the change-up go too fast, why wouldn’t he alter his body or arm to help slow the pitch down? It actually makes complete sense.
So a mental conflict ensues because the mind is using the mechanics to slow the pitch down even though the pitcher knows that the change-up is supposed to be thrown with fastball mechanics; even though he knows not to slow his arm down, drop his arm slot or guide the ball. In short, the pitcher knows not to alter his mechanics.
So why does he keep repeating these mistakes? Why does controlling this pitch seem so elusive? The remainder of this article will be broken down into a 3-Step process to answer these questions and to explain why mental barriers must be broken for the pitcher to achieve consistency with his change-up.
Step 1: Repeating Fast Ball Mechanics
It shouldn’t be called a change-up…that’s deceiving because it suggests that something in the mechanics or arm needs to be slowed down. It should be called a fastball with a different grip -- Josh Karp, Washington Nationals
As we’ve seen, many pitchers will subconsciously create a physical flaw in their mechanics because they know that their normal fastball mechanics will cause the pitch to go too hard. But what would happen if we challenged pitchers to throw their fastball with a change-up grip? Though the pitch may in fact go too hard at least the mind would be relieved because there is no longer a “distinction” between fastball and change-up mechanics; relieved because the pitcher can cut loose.
Through this experience the pitcher will at least know the correct way to throw his change up from a mental and mechanical stand point. He will have broken through a mental barrier because he has been forced to throw his change-up without any manipulation. It is at this point that a pitcher will see the light and realize that the change-up isn’t a “different” pitch -- it doesn’t have to be thrown with altered mechanics.
Until a pitcher is forced to challenge his subconscious tendency to use the body to slow the ball down he may spend his entire career making one mechanical adjustment after another. Repeating fastball mechanics is essential if you want to throw a consistent change-up. It is also a prerequisite before moving on to Step 2, the grip.
Step 2: Slowing The Ball Down: The Grip
With Step 1 in place (repeating fastball mechanics), Step 2 will help insure that the ball is slowed down sufficiently by altering the grip. Since it is one of the more commonly taught pitches let’s use the circle change for our example.
Altering the grip happens in stages. The first stage is to look at the pitchers current grip and see how he’s holding the ball. Assuming that his grip has too much pressure on the ball I will simply move his middle finger a fraction of an inch toward the left side of the ball (for a right handed pitcher). What happens next is that the pitcher has “less ball” on his fingers. It still is similar enough to the pitchers original grip for him to retain a comfort level but there will now be less pressure on the ball. A traditional 3 finger circle change has now become a “2 ½ finger” circle change because the side, rather than the top of the middle finger is touching the ball.
This first adjustment alone can take off a few miles per hour from the original grip. This may of course be sufficient for most pitchers, but if more velocity needs to be taken off of the pitch a more aggressive approach would be to move the middle finger completely off of the ball (usually a pitcher would first have to establish a comfort level with “2 ½“ fingers”). This is considered a “2 finger” change-up because it isn’t getting any support from the middle finger.
Naturally, the smaller a pitchers hands, the more difficult it’s going to be to maintain control with most or all of middle finger off of the ball. An alternate adjustment then would be to pull the ball away from the palm and closer to the finger tips. Again, comfort may be sacrificed for a while but both adjustments will get comfortable in time.
Note: The same theory can be applied to any change-up grip. Just repeat the process by checking out the pitchers grip that is comfortable for him and require him to throw it like a fastball (to see if it goes too hard). Since it probably will, the next step is to experiment with different grips until the pitcher reaches a point where his fastball mechanics are sustained and the desired velocity is attained.
Step 3: Locating Via Focal Points
Once a pitcher has learned how to repeat his fastball with the appropriate grip the final step is to give the mind “somewhere” to go. This somewhere is what is called a focal point. Focal points are essential because they give the mind direction. They also represent a point that must be finished toward. Finishing is not only an important factor for throwing a fastball but it is crucial for maintaining a fastball commitment with the change-up.
Whether the focal point is the hitter’s shoulder for a curveball or a specific point on the catchers’ glove for a change-up or fastball focal points also remind the pitcher of “what to commit to” as opposed to “what may happen”. This is important because the mind can learn to focus on the constant of a focal point rather than the variables that exist in a game situation (the hitter, the score, scouts, consequences, etc).
Focusing on the process of what needs to be done is what initiates consistency and eliminates distractions. By focusing on fastball mechanics (Step 1), repeating your grip (Step 2) and having a focal point to repeat towards (Step 3) the mind can establish a format by which it can ingrain muscle memory. This is how skills are formed…this is what leads to reliable and consistent actions.
When a pitcher comes to the realization that his change-up is a fastball with an altered grip, he has broken through a major barrier that can allow repeating and deception to emerge. It is at this point that the pitcher establishes a sense of mental freedom because he is no longer worrying about manipulating the ball, or manipulating his mechanics. He has convinced himself that both pitches are the same, albeit, a different grip. And if he is convinced of this, than so is the hitter.
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