The case of the missing change up

Looking at the defense of Yankee catchers
Nick Swisher and BABIP
Hughes gears up to throw a curveball. Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Lost in the eighth inning implosion of Joba Chamberlain in Saturday’s Yankees-Mariners affair was the change-up clinic but Javier Vazquez and Felix Hernandez put on. The two both throw devastating changes but with different approaches to the pitch. As the game wore on, the importance of the change, something plaguing Yanks’ youngster Phil Hughes, came into focus.

Javy’s pitch is a classic change. With his fastball sitting at 89 miles per hour, he throws the change ten miles per hours slower. Doing so allows his fastball to sneak up on hitters, and on Saturday night, as Javy no-hit the Mariners for the first five innings, the change shined. He threw 23 of them. Fifteen of those went for strikes with seven of the swing-and-miss and variety. As his four-seamer averaged 89.65 mph, the change at 79.55 mph worked wonders.

Opposing Javy was King Felix with a different approach to the change. Hernandez’s off-speed pitch isn’t nearly as off speed as Javy’s. On Saturday, for instance, his four-seamer sat at 94.5 miles per hour while the change clocked in at 89.96. The 4.5-mph difference makes an impact, but it doesn’t lend the pitch the same effect as Javy’s. Rather, Hernandez throws a change that moves. The vertical break on his change was over five inches, enough to watch batters swing well over the top of it. He threw 15 changes, 11 went for strikes and three were swings and misses.

We don’t need a clinic in pitching from Felix Hernandez to see what a sinking change up can do though because the Yanks have their own specialist in that field. On the season, CC Sabathia‘s change-up averages seven miles per hour slower than his fastball and has been sinking on average 6.9 inches. Sabathia’s change has always been a part of his success, and already this the pitch has been 7.1 runsabove average for the big man.

Enter Phil Hughes. A big part of the Yankees’ narrative coming out of Spring Training this year concerned Hughes’ change-up. Because, the motif went, Hughes had developed a third Major League quality pitch, the Yankees felt confident putting him into the starting rotation on the basis of a strong spring. Yet, Hughes’ change hasn’t made much of an appearance this year. The Fangraphs’ data isn’t entirely accurate, but Hughes has thrown only around two percent changes, and the pitch has been a below average one for the Yanks’ right-hander. For the pitches Pitch f/x counts as changes, the velocity separate has been around eight miles per hour, and the downward movement at 6.6 inches, both very good numbers.

By and large, though, Hughes’ change-up has been one of the major questions hovering around the Yanks’ pitching staff this season. Where has this pitch been? Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal asked just that question last week, and the Yankees insist they’re still working on it with Hughes. Jorge Posada spoke about their reasons for avoiding the pitch. “It’s only going to get better if we call it, but as a catcher, you don’t want to get beat on a fourth pitch, so you have to pick the spot to do it,” the Yanks’ cathcer said. “We know it’s there. It’s mainly my fault and probably Cervelli’s fault. We need to not forget about it and call it at times.”

Costa discusses how Hughes’ success with his fastball has led to his eschewing the change. Phil knows the heat can blow away most hitters, and as he dominates hitters during the first time through the lineup, there’s no place for the change. This pitch should come to play later, and as Costa notes, in admittedly small samples, Hughes’ ERA goes from 2.40 in the first three innings of the game to 5.14 after as hitters adjust to the four-seamer.

Still, Hughes maintains that this pitch will be a part of his arsenal this season, and he says he hasn’t shied away from throwing it during his bullpen sessions. “I really feel like it’s there,” he said. “Sometimes I just get away from it. One hundred pitches goes by quick. Before you know it, you haven’t thrown many…”I’d like to say that down the line, you probably will see more of it.”

I too would like to see more of it. Despite an All Star Game appearance in which he got dinked to death by a seeing-eye single, Hughes is on the brink of stardom. He should be a mainstay at the front of the Yankee rotation for years to come, but he and the team’s future need that change up. As the Yanks move into the heat of a pennant race and teams get their second or third looks at Phil this year, Hughes will have to throw that pitch to stay ahead of the game.

Looking at the defense of Yankee catchers
Nick Swisher and BABIP
  • Bryan

    The change up is the best pitch in baseball IMO.

    If Hughes can use it effectively, it will make all the more better.

    • jon

      According to fangraphs his changeup is below avg along with his curve

      his bread and butter are the fastball and the cutter

      • whozat

        I think he meant in general, (well-thrown) changeups are the best. I tend to agree; a good changeup is both devastating and elegantly simple, and I love it.

        • Bryan

          Yeah. The only way you can really mess up when throwing the change is if you miss high in the zone. A belt change up will end up in the bleachers.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      Changeups are devastating weapons to keep hitters off balance, it’s true. Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Trevor Hoffman, Oil Can Boyd, Sandy Koufax, Pud Galvin – they all used the change masterfully to dominate opposing lineups.

      My sources tell me Casey Kelly’s changeup may end up being the best pitch in baseball history. It’s literally a changeup, as it actually changes from matter into pure energy as it passes over the plate, rematerializing only when safely inside the catcher’s mitt. It’s a true 85 on the 80-20 scale, and is second only to his famous five-seam fastball that he’s agreed not to throw anymore for parity reasons.

      For Diamond Cutters, I’m Peter Gammons, ESPN

      • Bryan (Formerly JobaJr)

        Lars Anderson is 90 on the 20-80 scale.

        /Theo Epstein’d.

      • B-Rando

        I laughed pretty hard at this one…nicely done

      • ROBTEN

        Well done.

        At first it was all serious…then it got real.

      • FishJam

        I see what you did there. And me likes it.

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder
    • pat

      Sheryl Crow offers her take on the situation-

      • Benjamin Kabak

        I had that one stuck in my head while writing this piece. It was almost the headline.

        • pat

          Heh, it plays in my head every time an opposing lefty fouls off his 4th 0-2 pitch.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        Sam Cooke >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
        >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Sheryl Crow

        • pat

          Linking to the relevant part of the video > Not

          • Pete

            maybe, but >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
            > >

          • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            You’ve got me there. You linked to the relevant part of that Sheryl Crow song you mentioned, while I started at the beginning of the Sam Cooke song I mentioned…

            … because there are no irrelevant parts to any Sam Cooke songs.

      • Rose
        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

          Rose: I love… carpet.
          Rose: I love… desk.
          Tommie: Rose, are you just looking at things in the office and saying that you love them?
          Rose: I love lamp.
          Tommie: Do you really love the lamp, or are you just saying it because you saw it?
          Rose: I love lamp. I love lamp.

  • Mike HC

    Nice article, enjoyed it.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) It sounds like Jorge is protecting his young pitcher Hughes a little bit by saying it is his fault for not calling it. I’m sure if the pitch was effective, he would be calling more of it. But good to see a veteran catcher protecting his staff.

    2) Even if they don’t plan on whipping out the change, it still makes sense for them to keep telling everyone that the change is coming. No sense in tipping your hand on how you are going to pitch the rest of the year. So I’m not sure how much stock I put into the Yanks telling me the change is coming.

    3) I have no doubt that he will at some point work the change in, and become an even more devastating pitcher than he already is. Good times.

    • A.D.

      Even if they don’t plan on whipping out the change, it still makes sense for them to keep telling everyone that the change is coming.

      This is true, but at this point they’ve also admitted catcher hesitance to call it. I’d imagine most hitter going forward are going to assume he’s not throwing it until if/when he actually is.

      • Mike HC

        Very true. Actions speak louder than words, especially when it comes to scouting.

  • A.D.

    Its somewhat frustrating that this is allegedly why Hughes won the starters job, and then despite recent struggles still isn’t being used. One would think when a hitter has fouled off 3 straight cutters it would be a great opportunity.

    • whozat

      I think them saying that this was why was just post-facto justification for a decision they’d already made. It seemed like, unless Joba had really shown them something wrt his conditioning and/or his ability to consistently repeat his delivery _and_ Phil got fat, bad or hurt, Hughes was getting the job.

  • Steve H

    If early in the game the first 3 pitches aren’t working, they need to go to the 4th pitch sooner. If Hughes is breezing through without it, I can see not wanting to get beat by it (even at the expense of developing the pitch), but if he’s not breezing, they need to get it going. If it’s on, it only helps the other pitches.

    • mike c

      the fact that he’s 11-2 with a 3.65 so far makes him potentially more dangerous in the 2nd half this year, as he mixes in the change to throw off scouting reports and good teams that have seen him already this season

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        … that doesn’t make sense.

  • Pete

    On the bright side, Hughes should be really, really good at throwing fastballs by the end of this season

  • Frank

    While Hughes’ success with his FB may have contributed to him relying less on the change, I believe Hughes, at times, is too reliant on his FB which often does not move and is poorly located. That’s a bad combination. Even at 96MPH, if it’s straight, it’s going to get hit. I realize this is just part of the learning curve but I feel it’s worth pointing out.

    • Mike HC

      Whats why he developed the cutter. To make his straight fastball more effective. And it worked for both pitches. Now he needs to develop the change, to make both fastballs more effective.

      • Mike HC

        Thats why

      • Chris

        Now he needs to develop the change, to make both fastballs more effective.

        It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a change, but I don’t think it’s necessary. He’s already got the four seam fastball, the cutter and a curve ball. How many pitchers really have 4 major league pitches? How many of them throw their fourth pitch more than 5-10% of the time?

        • whozat

          Then the curve needs to get better and be used more. Hes not throwing too many of them either.

          • B-Rando


            The cutter has worked for him fantastically. The fact that he has this good of a season throwing 84%(!!) “hard stuff” tells us how great of a pitcher he can be.

            What will allow him to take the next step towards greatness, is the offspeed stuff. I used to hear amazing things about his curveball, and at times we’ve seen his curve be a fantastic pitch. However, we know how easily a pitcher can lose a feel for a pitch after not throwing it for a while.

            Look at Papelbum (I know he’s a reliever vs. Hughes as a starter). The guy has gotten burned several times in recent years by just trying to blow people away with a 96 mph straight as an arrow fastball. He has other pitches, some of which are actually pretty good, but he got so used to blowing people away with fastballs, that he lost the feel for those pitches. We see him now working in the splitter more often, and I can see how big of a difference that makes for him.

            This all goes the same for Hughes on a larger scale, because with that good off speed pitch hitters will be even more helpless. It’ll make his already impressive fastball/cutter combo look even more devastating.

            • Mike HC

              Agreed that throwing the curve more often will be a big help and Hughes could easily get by with the curve, and two fastballs. But, the curve is really not a deception pitch. The change is more of a deceptive pitch and will keep the hitter guessing between the four seamer, cutter or change until the last second.

              The curve changes speed and is an excellent change of pace pitch, but the hitter can pick up the curve out of the hand pretty quick.

        • Doug


          Of those AL pitchers with 80+ IPs and whose FBs clock in > 90 MPH, King Felix, Buchholz, Price, Morrow, Garza, Lester, Greinke, Floyd, Davies, Peavy, Shields, Sheets, Niemann, Baker, Danks, Lackey, Romero, Saunders, Cecil, CJ Wilson, Westbrook, Feldman, Blackburn, Cahill, Matusz, Lewis, and Bannister, all have 4 pitches they throw at least 5% (rounding) of the time.

          • Doug

            that’s 27 of 43 for those counting

            • Chris

              So 16 of the 43 don’t throw a fourth pitch, and of the 27 most of them throw their 4th pith 6-8% of the time. Do you really think 4 more change ups per game will make that big a difference?

              I agree that he needs to throw more offspeed stuff, but that should probably start with throwing the curve more often.

          • Pete


            • Chris

              I went back and counted, and 7 of the 43 throw a 4th pitch more than 10% of the time. So I was right on in questioning how many pitchers throw a 4th pitch more than 5-10% of the time.

  • Doug

    84% of his pitches are either fastballs or cutters. That is, by far, the highest percentage in the AL.

    Definitely needs to start mixing in off-speed pitches more.

  • Ivan

    I agree that Hughes should mixed his pitches up more. However, I think if anything he should throw his curveball more. His curveball has produce great results and it seems especially when he gets deeper into games, he doesn’t rely on it as he should.

    Remember it’s his 1st full year being a full time starter in the big leagues, so he is still growing as a pitcher. However, I do agree that the change should be incorporated more often. Not too much obviously because it is his 4th best pitch, but just enough to give the hitter something to think about which would make Hughes job much easier.

  • Paul

    I printed this article out, I want my son (5 now) to read it when he is a lttle older and in little league and wants to know why I won’t let him throw a curve or some other pitch that over strains his arm/elbow.

  • Chip

    You know, at the beginning of the season I was upset that he wasn’t throwing the change more but when he’s been so good with the fastball/cutter/curve combo, it’s really hard for me to complain.

    I really would like to see him try it now and then against guys who constantly foul off his fastball/cutter combo but then again I’d like to see AJ throw it more often all the time and that’s just not happening.

  • Jorge

    We should have Phil friend Edwar Ramirez on Facebook. That will solve everything.

  • Am I the only Kevin?

    What ever happened to the splitter? Essentially, it is the same as the power-type change thrown by Felix/CC. It has only 5-8 mph separation from 4-seam fastball (less than a straight change), but counters with a more pronounced downward dip and arm-side fade. Why don’t the Yanks teach this pitch? My understanding was the splitter was essentially the alternative to the change because some guys just couldn’t get a feel for the change grip (and vice versa), couldn’t get movement because of their natural arm angle, etc. I think I remember reading/hearing that it was a better pitch for guys with over the top 4-seamers.

    It seems the vogue offspeed pitch of the 90s was the splitter, and now very few throw it. Is the splitter harder on the arm or something? Why aren’t any Yankee farmhands being taught this pitch if the cannot master the change?

    • Mike HC

      It supposedly causes elbow problems, so the Yanks have steered guys away from it in the minors.

      • Am I the only Kevin?

        Really? I guess that would explain it, but it just seems counter-intuitive to me. The splitter is not like a curve or slider where one really snaps the elbow or pronates the wrist. I threw it in HS, and it was simply grab ball, split fingers, and throw like you would on your normal fastball. No odd turning the wrist over like one does with a change in order to get fade.

        While I was clearly not throwing 90mph, the splitter certainly didn’t feel any more strenuous than a fastball. Now, trying to spin a good slider or curve? You definitely felt that in your elbow.

        • Mike HC
        • CS Yankee

          I believe that the feel for a change is a natural one…you can throw it box, circle or flat four grip-wise but even kid pitchers have a hard mental adjustment to a) not snapping the pitch for it to be effective, and b) in a belief that the batter won’t crush such a slow pitch. Once those two things are overcome, its great stuff. i don’t like it thrown inside to the batter (ala Maddux) or to start a batter off with one but am learning to adjust that thought process myself…to coaching with some success.

          The three worst arm related pitches are believed to be (in this order):
          1) Screw (as you have to finish in a very unnatural snap away from your body).
          2) Curve …however if this pitch is thrown over-the-top, hammer style while keeping the shoulder (with no wrist) in, it is a safe pitch.
          3) Split-finger…using the hand (see screw), wrist (see curve) or fingers (Mr Splitty) can affect the ligaments towards the elbow.

          I believe (due to reading) that The Curve can be thrown at a young age (if used like listed above), The Splitty only once the arm is fully developed and contioned, and the Screw as a sad attempt to stay in the bigs as one enters past his prime.

  • David

    I agree with this article when it talks about how Hughs is going to have to learn a new pitch come playoffs. The opposing team is going to catch on to his fastball when they bat for the second time. Maybe even the first since they would have probably already seen it before during he season. Girardi’s got to tell the catcher, wether it be Posada or Cervelli, to let Hughs get used to throwing the change-up. It’s different when you’re pitchng in a game rather then a bullpen session.

  • FishJam

    Splitter was the “big” pitch of the 80s and part of the 90s. Now the pitch that is making the big difference for pitchers (see Hughes, Cliff Lee, etc) is the cutter.

    Puts less stress on the arm and is very effective. Hughes has an outstanding cutter but he must develop the change and curve to become a consistent top of rotation starter.

    I like what I’ve seen of his change and it needs to become a big weapon vs lefties. I remember some nasty ones he threw to get Utley, Ibanez & Branyan to swing and miss at. He just needs to trust it…..always hard for a power pitcher when adjusting to the change at any level.

  • Tim

    Phil Hughes stats since May 17:

    6-2, 5.73 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 1.64 HR/9

    A.J. Burnett stats since May 17:

    3-6, 6.07 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 1.59 HR/9

    Not that much different. And that includes Burnett’s historically bad June, where he was 0-5 with an 11+ ERA. This is the problem with Hughes – in reality, he hasn’t been much better than Burnett since mid-May. Don’t get me wrong – I love the guy, and I see him at the front of this rotation for a long time. but he HAS to throw the change-up and throw it with confidence. It was only a matter of time before the league got a book on him.

  • Brian in NH

    OMG i had a dream last night that I was at a Yanks/Sox game at Fenway and Phil Hughes gave up 9 runs in the first inning. Can’t say if it was because he wasn’t using a changeup or it was a poor change up. but talk about nightmares!