The Art of the Changeup

Trevor Bauer has worked to make his changeup an effective and familiar offering to his slider. (via Erik Drost)

Trevor Bauer spent the majority of his 2018 offseason figuring out how to do something foreign to him: side spin a baseball. Changeups consist of both run and vertical drop. Run is horizontal movement in toward a right-handed hitter. Changeups can possess all run and little vertical drop or no run and a lot of vertical drop. With true side spin on a baseball, you create horizontal movement and essentially eliminate the lift component that can limit downward movement. “Somewhere in that range of axes is where the ideal changeup lives,” Bauer told me.

During the 2017 offseason, Bauer made progress developing his changeup to have true side spin, but the pitch changed when he ramped himself up to max effort, as he told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. He sidelined the changeup when another pitch he was developing, his slider, started to take shape. His goal in developing his changeup was, in a way, to mirror his slider. If he possessed two pitches that started at one point in the zone and moved laterally in opposite directions, hitters would have trouble sitting on one location. In the broader picture of his repertoire, it filled the one hole he had — a pitch with arm-side run and drop.


Credit: MLB

Entering the most recent offseason, Bauer already had a slider to move right to left. By tinkering with grips and optimizing his changeup at the data-driven player development company Driveline Baseball, he achieved the mirrored, left-to-right complement. His changeup has become an important component of his repertoire, and his grip plays a key role in the pitch’s success. But the pitch’s development has coincided with hitters’ adjustment to his slider, forcing him to rethink the balance of his pitch mix.

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Bauer’s difficulty side-spinning a changeup came from his hand position upon release of the ball. For a pitch to truly side spin and achieve Bauer’s goal, the ball can’t have backspin because it creates “lift” on the pitch and takes away from potential downward action. According to Driveline Baseball’s manager of pitching, Bryan Leslie, there are two ways to kill the lift component on a changeup. The first is to reduce the spin of the pitch, and the second is to change the axis of the spin. A perfectly backspun fastball, spinning end-over-end toward the plate, has essentially none of its spin converted to horizontal movement. By turning the ball away from 12 o’clock and toward one, two, or three o’clock on a clock face, lateral movement is created, and lift on the ball is reduced.

Because of Bauer’s old hand position with a standard four-seam changeup grip, the pitch was naturally released with a degree of backspin that created some lift, as he says in a conversation with Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi. With the help of high-speed Edgertronic cameras at Driveline, Bauer was able to see in fine detail how he released the ball out of his hand. He altered the grip of the pitch so that when his last finger to make contact with the ball released, his middle finger, it would slip and rotate the ball laterally. By wedging the ball between his middle and ring finger, it allowed him to release the ball with this ideal side spin and achieve a similar hand position as his other pitches.


Credit: Watch Momentum, Driveline Baseball

Bauer isn’t the only pitcher to use what is commonly known as a vulcan grip. A wave of changeups with split middle and ring finger have become common, especially on the San Diego Padres. Chris Paddack, the Padres’ 2019 breakout starter, throws a change-up with a vulcan grip. So does Triple-A starting pitcher Logan Allen. In the Padres minor league system, Joey Cantillo, a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher drafted out of Kailua High School in Kailua, Hawaii, uses a vulcan grip as well.

Cantillo’s high school coach, Corey Ishigo, taught him to hold the ball between his middle and ring finger. But Cantillo didn’t use his changeup during his amateur career. “You don’t need to throw it in high school. An 88-mph fastball works, especially in Hawaii,” he says with a laugh. Part of his daily throwing program during his first summer with the Padres consisted of throwing his changeup. “It was the worst part of my day because I didn’t know where it was going,” he says now. The following spring, however, in extended spring training in Peoria, Arizona, with the Padres, the pitch finally clicked. The constant build of delivering the pitch from the prior year allowed him finally to become comfortable with the movement. “It was just repetition,” he says. His changeup is now considered his best pitch.

Cantillo’s vulcan grip, similar to Bauer’s, is one of the reasons he thinks the pitch is so successful. He sees young pitchers struggle with changeups a lot, citing confidence and grip as the reasons why. “The pressure in between my middle and ring finger gives it depth,” Cantillo says. With a regular four-seam changeup grip, where a pitcher’s middle and ring finger are not forced apart, no friction is created between a pitcher’s hand and the ball. “There’s no reason for the pitch to get depth,” he says. The pressure naturally alters his arm release and allows the ball to both run and fade. He throws the pitch as hard as he can, like a fastball, letting his grip do the work. His heavy use of rosin during starts helps create this desired friction.


Credit: Lance Brozdowski

But even with a high level of technique on the pitch, Cantillo still has issues maintaining consistency, similar to the early stages of Bauer’s changeup development. Sometimes Cantillo’s changeups only run; other times, they only bottom out with downward movement. “The best ones do both,” Cantillo says. The reason for this issue might come from his release. Sometimes Cantillo says he’s inside the ball more, other times he’s more on top. The slight differences change the action of the pitch. As Bauer says, somewhere on the changeup spectrum, between the poles of only run and only vertical downward movement, is where the ideal changeup lives. Cantillo is still working toward maintaining that perfection from pitch to pitch. Bauer, nine years Cantillo’s senior, has achieved his desired results with a methodical approach to a similar grip.

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Bauer’s primary usage of his changeup comes against left-handed hitters. To understand the nuances in his deep repertoire, consider his approach to right-handed hitters. “The best pitch is going to be something that’s sweeping away from a righty,” Bauer says. “Anything coming in, there’s a chance you pull your hands in and can get the barrel to it.”

As of June 12, of all pitches thrown from right-handed pitchers to right-handed hitters, only 6% have been changeups. That number jumps to 15% when considering pitches thrown from right-handed pitchers to left-handed hitters. As Bauer says above, a pitch moving away from a hitter is optimal. This is why changeups are more common in situations where right-handed pitchers face left-handed hitters.

Bauer throws pitches that move away to some degree over 50% of the time to right-handed hitters: cutter, curveball and slider. But if a pitcher solely throws offspeed pitches away from right-handed hitters, they may start leaning out over the plate to reach breaking pitches or lay off them entirely. This is especially prevalent with two strikes, when fastball usage generally decreases.

In an attempt to counter this, Bauer incorporates his changeup sparingly. He has thrown the pitch only 28 times, or 3%, against right-handed hitters and has not turned to it once in his last four outings. But if executed properly, the pitch can be a successful complement. “It becomes difficult for righties to hit,” Bauer says. “Because the movement is perpendicular to their barrel path.”


Credit: MLB

Although Bauer’s changeup above isn’t perfectly perpendicular to the path of hitter’s barrel, it still produces the desired result — a swing and miss. This demonstrates how changeups, if inconsistent or different in shape, can become vulnerable pitches. “If you have good depth to it then [a changeup] becomes a lot safer pitch than if you have just a straight changeup,” Bauer says.

For a Bauer to throw his changeup to right-handers, even as sparingly as he does, it’s important for the pitch to achieve maximum lateral movement with depth through side-spinning the pitch — and to do so consistently. With this in mind, he can keep the pitch as perpendicular to a right-handed hitter’s barrel path as possible. This gives the hitter a small window of opportunity to make contact. “I like right-right changeups below the zone, back foot because it crosses the barrel path [perpendicular] if you have the right type of changeup,” Bauer says.

If Bauer misses his preferred changeup location — below the strike zone, diving toward a right-hander’s back foot — it often ends up in the strike zone and becomes a hittable pitch. For this reason, he’ll sometimes opt to throw the pitch away from right-handed hitters and have it dive back into the zone, a backdoor pitch. “It’s a safer pitch,” Bauer says. “But you don’t get as many swings.”

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While Bauer works to incorporate a changeup into his arsenal, Trevor Richards, a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher for the Miami Marlins, knows it’s his best pitch. No right-handed pitcher in baseball has thrown more changeups to right-handed hitters than Richards this season. He’s the only pitcher with over 200 thrown as of June 22; the pitcher directly behind him needs over 80 offerings to catch up. But even Richards spent the offseason working on developing his curveball and incorporating a cutter — two pitches that move away from right-handed hitters. He was training himself to expand his repertoire, like Bauer.“Whether they’re right-handed or left-handed, they’re always looking for a changeup,” Richards says. “It was really important for me to get something going [right to left].”

Richards relied so heavily on his fastball and changeup last season that using the pitch early in the count meant its effectiveness would wane later in at-bats. This runs counter to the common logic of pitchers wanting to turn to their best pitch most often with two strikes. Even if the pitch grades out well based on movement and swing and miss, the more times a hitter sees the pitch in a game, the less effective it can become.

For this reason, Richards and his heavy changeup usage ran into problems. Making a hitter have to consider more pitches and having the comfort to throw them is imperative. Now equipped with a cutter he uses over 12% of the time along with sparing curveball usage, even if Richards’ pitches don’t grade out well, they still create a different look for hitters. “If you don’t have [other pitches] you can go to and you’re confident in,” Bauer says, “then you run up against people that know what you’re going to do.”

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But even with a deep repertoire, a pitcher can find himself struggling. After a stellar 2018, Bauer has found himself failing to replicate that success. He is striking out fewer hitters, walking more and giving up more runs. “My slider has not been sharp this year from a location standpoint,” Bauer says. With Bauer’s slider becoming one of his best pitches during 2018, hitters have tended to sit on his sliders off the plate this year. They either take the pitch or punch it for a base hit. On sliders to right-handed hitters in Bauer’s optimal location — sweeping away — hitters are swinging 14% less than they did in 2018.

“I think a lot of the early season results on that pitch specifically are a result of hitters looking at what I did last year and zeroing in on what they’re going to be looking for,” Bauer says. To try to get hitters to look away from his slider in two-strike counts, he has opted for more four-seam fastball usage. “As soon as they have to defend the fastball again,” Bauer says, “my slider and changeup will get more effective.”

Bauer dealt with a similar issue last season, albeit without his present, optimized changeup. On July 31, 2018, he faced the Minnesota Twins and surrendered four walks, two runs and struck out pnly three batters. “They were taking sliders this far off the zone,” says Bauer gauging the length of an inch with his two hands almost touching. “It was frustrating.”

One week later, he faced the Twins again and changed his tendencies. In his initial start, he threw 11 two-strike sliders to hitters and favored his two-seam fastball deep in counts. In the following start, he threw his slider only three times in two-strike counts. Instead, he almost evenly split up a variety of his pitches, focusing slightly on his old — not perfectly side-spun — changeup. It forced hitters to realize there was no pattern to his late-count pitch distribution. The results in his rematch with the Twins were stellar: six innings, zero runs, and 11 strikeouts.

In a way, the Twins foreshadowed what teams would do to Bauer this season. He expects his adjustment this time around to be more fastball use to keep hitters honest on his breaking pitches. It remains to be seen whether his results will mimic that of his turnaround against the Twins in 2018.

When asked whether he thinks the development of his changeup has caused some of this slider deterioration, Bauer’s answer was simple: “No, I don’t.” But for one of his most effective pitches to regress in its performance at a time when he finally develops his ideal changeup is an odd coincidence: He fixed one problem only to have another emerge.

“It’s a little bit of a learning curve for me, figuring out what proportions I need to throw these pitches in,” Bauer says. He is focused on determining how much he needs to throw his changeup in order not to take away from his formerly dominant slider. At the same time, he needs to determine how many curveballs he needs to throw early in order to keep hitters from ignoring the pitch and optimize when to throw his fastball in order to keep hitters off all his breaking balls. His changeup is simply one piece of the puzzle.

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Cantillo has dealt with a similar issue this season. The lefty posted a 6.94 ERA in his first four starts of 2019. In his seven starts since, his ERA is an elite 0.72. The difference for him has been increased consistency of his changeup and attacking the strike zone. But his repertoire has simplified as well.

One of Cantillo’s player development tasks this season included the development of his curveball, particularly to throw it more to improve his pitch — similar to how his changeup developed. After struggling in his first few outings, he and his pitching coach, Matt Williams, decided to reduce his curveball usage. “[Williams] said, ‘Let’s back off from that, let’s stop throwing 20 curveballs a day, get back to the changeup, get back to up and down,’” Cantillo says.

He threw zero curveballs in his May 10 start and only six or seven in his May 16 start. The pitch has grown as a result, and Cantillo has been stellar since. But, as Bauer said, a pitcher needs to have multiple offerings he can confidently turn to in order to react to hitters’ adjustment. Cantillo knows he will not be able to succeed at higher levels with only a fastball and changeup. “I will add that curveball back,” he says. “And then maybe a slider or a cutter later on.”

Cantillo has not gotten to the point where balancing six pitches to keep hitters honest, like Bauer, is an issue. At some point in his career, however, with more pitches, he will likely stumble upon the same puzzle Bauer and Richards are tackling right now at the major league level. Both Bauer’s and Richards’ experimentation could be a key data point for a pitcher like Cantillo to learn from.

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Bauer’s spectacular Father’s Day outing marked his strongest start of 2019. He approached hitters with early count cutter usage and turned to his slider heavily late in counts, deviating from his guess earlier this season that deep-count fastball usage would make hitters vulnerable to his offspeed. Whether this approach sticks the rest of season remains to be seen, but for Bauer to make his changeup a minor offering — his lone pitch with arm-side run and the absence of lift — seems unlikely.

Richards’ cutter has become a more important offering in his repertoire this season, but when the pitch’s usage peaked during the month of May, his results lagged behind. Of late, he has opted to force more changeup-fastball sequences to unbalance hitters. To abide by his want to keep hitters off his changeup, this likely will not sustain. Both pitchers will continue to adjust in pursuit of success; it’s just a matter of which offerings they feature and how hitters react.


Graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Stringer for the Associated Press. Feature writer for Baseball Prospectus. Co-founder of Prospects Live. Aspiring baseball scribe.
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CL1NT
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CL1NT

Awesome stuff! The GIFs are a fantastic touch!

The slo mo of Bauer’s changeup is sick. It’s amazing how pitchers are able to control a pitch that looks so uncomfortable to grip.

sgp2204
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sgp2204

That first video of the slider/change up is fantastic. Good read.

LenFuego
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LenFuego

This article was an excellent read. Any article with Bauer sharing his thoughts on the art of pitching cannot help but be informative, especially when the author organizes the material as thoughtfully as here. I did have trouble with one term. Both Bauer and Cantillo used the term “depth” in their discussion. I thought I understood that term to mean that the ball moves late … i.e., it comes in looking like a strike all the way and then, for a typical change up, just before the ball enters the strike zone it dives under the strike zone (or for… Read more »

FEATSports
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FEATSports

Just wanted to check. This is the same changeup I think Stro is throwing. Great read as always!!!

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

I’ve seen the Vulcan change grip for years and I never realized it works like that, because the one split finger is longer and drives side spin. Wow.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

I’m not gettiing this: “Changeups can possess all run and little vertical drop or no run and a lot of vertical drop.” Don’t they actually go together? As in your next sentence: lots of run, no lift.

“With true side spin on a baseball, you create horizontal movement and essentially eliminate the lift component that can limit downward movement.”

Can you help me out?

mattventricelli
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mattventricelli

Great article and interviews Lance. Pitch design developments with Edgertronics and Rapsodo are taking the league by storm from the big leagues down to rookie ball. Cant wait to see what it will become over the next few years.