The First Rule of Changeups
Whether you have seen the movie or not, I think most people have heard that the first rule of Fight Club is that you never talk about fight club.
This quote came to mind a few days ago while I was working with a new student on developing her changeup. As I watched her it hit me: the first rule of changeups is that they can never LOOK like changeups – at least until you release the ball. After that, they’d better!
What do I mean by they can never look like changeups? Basically, you don’t want to have to do anything with your approach, your body, or anything else to make a changeup work.
The changeup should always look like it’s going to be a fastball until the ball is on its way, when suddenly the hitter realizes (hopefully too late) that the pitch they thought was coming is not the pitch that’s actually coming.
Yet people teach crazy and self-defeating stuff about the changeup all the time. So to help those of you who are just getting into it, here are some things you definitely don’t want or need to do to make a changeup work.
Using Strange Grips
This is something I see all the time. I’ll ask a new student who says she throws a changeup to show it to me, and the first thing she does is start tucking a knuckle or two, or go into a “circle change” grip where you hold the ball with the middle through little fingers while the thumb and first finger make a circle.
All of that is not only unnecessary but it’s actually counter-productive. What makes a changeup work is that it surprises the hitter.
If you go into some crazy grip that is easily spotted from the coaching box, or worse yet from the batter’s box, the only surprise that’s going to happen is you being surprised at how quickly that pitch leaves the ballpark.
If you really want to disguise the change you should be able to use your fastball grip to throw the changeup. Because, and I will say it loud for the people in the back, it’s not the grip that makes a pitch work; it’s how the pitch is thrown.
If you have a well-designed changeup you’ll be able to use your fastball grip, maybe with a slight modification such as sliding the thumb over a little, and still take the right amount of speed off.
Slowing Down Your Arm or Body
This is another one that is pretty obvious to the hitter, the coaching staff, the players on the bench, and even people just cutting through the park to get to the pickleball courts.
If you have to slow your arm down to throw a changeup, you’re not throwing a changeup. You’re throwing a weak fastball.
Think of a changeup as being the polar opposite of most people’s experiences hitting off a pitching machine fed by a human. The human slowly brings the ball down to the chute to put it in, maybe fumbles with it a bit, then the ball shoots out at 65 mph or whatever speed the coach thinks will help hitters hit better. (Spoiler alert: setting the machine too high actually hurts your hitters.)
The reason machines are so hard to hit off of is that the visual cues of the arm don’t match the speed of the pitch. Because if you actually threw the ball with that arm motion it would go about three feet away at a speed of 5 mph.
A great changeup turns that model on its head. The arm and body speed indicate a pitch coming in at whatever the pitcher’s top speed has been.
But because of the way it’s released, the ball itself actually comes out much slower. The mismatch between the arm speed and ball speed upset the hitter’s timing and either gets her to swing way too early (and perhaps screw herself into the ground) or freezes her in place while her brain tries to figure out the discrepancy,
Either way, the hitter is left wondering what happened – and now has something new to worry about at the plate because she doesn’t want to be fooled again.
Making a Face or Changing Body Language
This is something that often happens prior to the pitch.
Maybe the pitcher has developed a habit of sticking her tongue out before she throws a change. Maybe she changes where she stands on the pitching rubber or does a different glove snap or alters their windup or has some other little “cheat” that helps her throw the pitch.
All of these things can send a SnapChat to the hitter that a changeup is about to happen.
Smart pitchers will video themselves throwing fastballs and changeups , especially in-game, to see if anything they’re doing is giving away the pitch that’s about to be thrown. If there isn’t, great.
But if there is, they need to work at it until they’re not giving it away anymore. The pitcher’s chief weapon when throwing a changeup is the element of surprise.
They need to make sure they’re maintaining it until the ball is actually on its way.
Keep the Secret
A changeup that everyone knows is coming is not going to be very effective. And given today’s hot bats it can be downright dangerous for the pitcher.
Remember that the first rule of throwing a changeup is that it can’t look like you’re going to throw a changeup and y
No Need to Paint the Corners with a Changeup
Recently my friend and fellow pitching coach Linda Lensch, a trainer with the NJ Ruthless and owner of Greased Lightning Fastpitch High Performance Instruction LLC attended an online presentation about how new technologies are improving and changing the game.
Linda was kind enough to share the PowerPoint of the presentation with a few of us pitching coaches. Included was some data, presented by Florida State assistant coach Troy Cameron, that came out of pitching tracking by YakkerTech at five D1 schools.
One of the things I found most interesting was the heat map on changeup locations and results, which you can see on the far left.
Notice how both the vast majority of pitch locations AND the vast majority of whiffs (swings and misses) aren’t on the corners. Instead, they are dead red.
I have been preaching this for years based on my own observations and experience, and have heard many college coaches say the same thing. You don’t have to be clever or try to paint the corners if you have an effective changeup. Just throw it down the middle, mid-thigh-high or below, and you’ll get the desired effect – a whiff.
Now we have the data to prove it.
I’ll say it again a little louder for those in the back, and for those who have been coaching he same way for 20 years and don’t like new information: YOU DON’T NEED TO PAINT THE CORNERS WITH A CHANGEUP. JUST THROW IT DEAD RED.
What does this mean from a practical standpoint?
For one, pitchers can quit wasting time trying to lean how to paint the corners with a changeup and instead focus their time on disguising the fact that it IS a changeup.
Most pitchers start out learning to throw different pitches down the middle, and then once they can do that will move on to moving them out. In this case, once a pitcher can throw it low and slow without giving it away in her motion she can move on to other pitches.
It also means coaches can quit insisting until their hair is on fire that their pitchers must be able to spot their changeups inside and out. Less stress for the pitcher and the pitch caller.
The pitchers’ parents can also relax in the stands if they see their daughters throwing changeups down the middle. It’s fine, dude or dudette. That’s where it’s most effective.
Why is it most effective down the middle? Now we get into speculation and theories, but I have a pretty good suspicion on that topic based on 20+ years of teaching that pitch.
The whole point of a changeup is to either induce a hitter to swing well ahead of the ball arriving at the plate or confuse her on what she’s seeing to the point where she lets the pitch go by before she can process it. The way you do that is by bringing the body and arm at one speed while having the ball travel at a different, slower speed. Easier said than done, by the way.
It’s like a reverse pitching machine. With a machine, the feeder’s arm usually moves glacially slow (and may even fumble putting the ball in the chute) while the pitch is delivered at 55, 60, 65, etc. mph. The arm speed and the pitch speed don’t match up, so the hitter is perpetually behind the pitch unless she know the keys to hitting off a machine.
With the changeup the opposite is true. The body and especially the arm are traveling through space at a rate of speed that matches the pitcher’s fastest pitch (usually the fastball), but the design of the pitch allows it to be delivered 12-15 mph slower than the fastest pitch without any visible clues that it will be slower.
That’s why you see hitters’ knees buckle when a well-thrown change comes at them. The visual clues and the reality don’t match up and they contort themselves into a pretzel trying to adjust on the fly.
And if you can do that as a pitcher, down the middle works just fine. In fact it’s probably preferable because it can fool umpires too, so why not make it easier for them to call?
Now, before anyone starts saying “Oh, that only works at the lower levels” remember where this data comes from. It comes from five colleges that tracked every pitch of their pitchers and their opponents during home games.
And since these are not cheap systems by any means, you can bet that these were some pretty big schools, i.e., ones you see on TV all the time. They’re the only ones with the budgets to afford it.
So if it works at that level, you can be pretty sure it will work at yours.
The data doesn’t lie. It’s all there in black and white and red.
Quit wasting time focusing on painting the corners with changeups and just turn your pitchers loose to deliver them where they will be most effective based on the data: dead red.
You’ll get better results. And your pitchers will have one less thing to worry about.
Beginner’s Guide to Calling Pitches
This came up recently when the mom of one of my students asked me for a little help in learning how to call pitches for her daughter. Makayla worked very hard through the off-season, pre-season, and then the season itself to learn to throw a good, reliable fastball, a strong change, and the beginnings of a drop ball.
The thing is, knowing how to throw those pitches isn’t enough. You also need to know when. Sarah wanted to use the pitches strategically but wasn’t sure how.
Now, you can search for fastpitch pitch calling guides on the Internet, but most of them assume a much older, more experienced pitcher with a variety of pitches at their disposal. Yes, it’s great to say “throw a curve followed by a rise” to this type of hitter. But what if you don’t have either?
To help her out, I put together the guide below. You can either copy and print it out, from this post or you can download the attachment which contains the same information.
The guide essentially speaks to how to use “just” a fastball and a change to get ahead of hitters and keep them off-balance so they either strike out or make weak contact. It goes through what to throw different types of hitters as well as some core strategies.
This information has been vetted, too. I checked in with Sarah after Makayla’s last tournament and she said it worked great. So if you’re just getting into the whole cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters, this guide should give you a good start.
Basic Pitch Calling Guide
This guide assumes the pitcher has a fastball and changeup, and can locate her fastball reasonably well. Keep in mind that you also have to pay attention to what the pitcher has that day. If she can’t throw to the outside corner this day, you won’t want to do that as often and so on.
Good hitter (1-5 in lineup most likely)
- Start low and out. Most hitters don’t like that pitch and will let it go by for a free strike. “When in doubt, throw low and out.”
- When ahead in the count (0-2 or 1-2), don’t throw strikes trying to go for the “quick kill.” Try throwing a high pitch, or well outside.
- Mix it up. If you threw two outside pitches in a row, come back inside. But don’t do it every time. Having a set pattern will come back to haunt you.
- If the changeup is working, try starting a strong hitter with a change. They’re usually looking to rock a fastball so a change will throw them off – maybe for the entire at bat.
- Keep the ball low. You want ground balls, not fly balls.
- Again, try starting with a changeup.
- If the first change worked, don’t be afraid to throw another one right away. Hitters rarely expect back-to-back changeups.
- Depending on the situation, a walk may not be a bad option. Better to give up one base than four. Especially with runners on base.
- With an 0-1 count, try coming inside. Let her crush a pitch foul down the left field line (right handed batter). It’s just a long strike, but it provides an overblown sense of self-confidence. Then go back outside, or throw a change.
- If you can blow the ball by them, do it. Don’t try to get too fancy until they prove they can catch up to the fastball. A changeup may be the only pitch they can hit.
- Don’t worry as much about inside/outside either. If you’re overpowering them, just rear back and rock it in there.
- If they look nervous at the plate, come inside for a strike. One inside pitch ought to be enough to freeze their bats.
Slappers (if you see any)
- Watch how they run toward the front of the box
- If they go directly at the pitcher, throw inside to try and jam them; throwing low and out just helps them by putting the ball where they want it
- If they try to run to first base right away, throw outside
- Throw changeups to take away the advantage of a running start
- Throw high to try to get them to pop up
Good times to throw a changeup
- First pitch to a good hitter (but not all the time).
- Right after pulling the ball far down the line foul. She’s ahead of the fastball. She’ll REALLY be ahead of the change.
- When she fouls a pitch straight back.
- Right after she missed a changeup.
- When she’s been fouling off several pitches. She has the timing down, just hasn’t quite gotten the bat on the ball. Throw the change, even if it’s for a ball. The change in speed will upset her timing.
Hitter location at the plate
- Standing close to the plate – throw inside (but be careful – some hitters like inside and not inside; I teach hitters like that to crowd the plate on purpose to turn outside pitches into middle pitches and to try to draw inside pitches)
- Standing away from the plate – throw outside; they won’t be able to reach the pitch, and are probably scared of being hit
Getting the feel of dragging the changeup
I could have sworn I have posted this before, but I just ran a bunch of searches and couldn’t find it so just in case here it goes again.
One of the keys to throwing an effective backhand change is to pull or drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first rather than pushing it ball first. Or snapping it like a fastball.
Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for pitchers to get that feeling. That’s what the drill shown at the top of this post is for, demonstrated by a former student of mine named Tayler Janda (helped by her mom Jennie) back when she was in high school.
Essentially, you set the pitcher up with her feet apart so they won’t move. Then have her grasp a swim noodle with her knuckles facing forward. When you say go, she pulls the noodle out of your hand and flings it forward. (NOTE: have her try to do it without spinning her shoulders like Tayler is doing in the video.)
The goal of this drill is to get the pitcher to feel what it’s like to hold onto the ball until she reaches forward as far as she can go before releasing, and to maintain speed all the way through.
A few repetitions and she should start to get the feel. The nice thing about this drill is you can do it indoors on a rainy day just as easily as you can on a field or in a cage.
If you have (or are) a pitcher who is having trouble finding the proper release on your change, give this one a try.
My fastpitch learning by osmosis theory
I have always been a big believer in the ability of kids, at least certain kids, to learn the nuances of softball through osmosis. I certainly saw it with my own daughters, who were eight years apart.
When my older daughter Stefanie was playing, we dragged all the other kids out to her games. We had to – she was the oldest, and we couldn’t leave the others at home.
When Stefanie was playing 14U, my youngest child Kim was 6. I was coaching, so I mostly remember seeing her heading off to a playground or just sitting in the grass. We never talked to her much about what was going on.
But somewhere along the way it must’ve stuck in her brain, because by the time she started playing she had a pretty high level of innate knowledge about what to do when. For example, I never had to teach Kim about going after the lead runner on comebacker to the pitcher. She just knew.
I am convinced that’s because she saw so many games. Even if she wasn’t constantly thinking about what was going on, she picked up a lot of it by osmosis. I think that’s the benefit the younger sister (or brother) gets.
I bring this up because of something that happened last night that just tickled me. I have been working with a 12U pitcher named Jenna for a little over a year now. (I refuse to say anyone is 11, 13, 15 or any other odd number of U. Old school.)
Anyway, I started with Jenna when she was 10U, and she’s made the transition to 12U pretty easily. It’s fun to see how far she’s come in a short period of time, and how she can take command of a game.
This summer, her dad Gary decided it would be a good time to get his younger daughter Sammie started. She was 8 when we started, playing rec league, but I know Gary has aspirations for her future. 🙂 She turned 9 not long ago.
At first she had all the challenges 8/9 year olds typically have. Like being so literal about her form that she looked all stiff and robotic.
But she’s determined, and has been working hard. The last couple of lessons the light bulb has started coming on and she’s been throwing more relaxed. Her strikes are going up, and she’s definitely throwing hard. So last night I thought it might be a good time to get her started on the basics of a changeup.
When I said that, Gary told me, “Sammie’s already gotten started on it.” Apparently she’d been watching Jenna and thought it looked pretty cool, so she decided to start working on it on her own.
I asked her to show me, and darned if she didn’t do a nice job! The pitch was really high, but it was straight, and more importantly it was the right speed without slowing her arm down. She did a couple more and it was the same thing.
Honestly, I was impressed. I asked Gary if he had been working with her and he said no. Sammie had just picked it up by watching Jenna.
I think what knocked me out was that she was maintaining her arm speed. Normally, when a new pitcher is trying a change on her own she’ll slow down to make the ball go slower. (Which, by the way, is the opposite of what you really want to do.) Not Sammie, though. She just cranked it right out there and let the design of the mechanics do the job.
Of course, it helps that she has a great example to model herself after. Jenna throws a killer change that is quite effective in games. But still. Sammie just sort of figured it out by watching.
We did some quick work and got Sammie throwing it for a strike at least part of the time. But it sure was nice to start from a solid foundation!
So there you go. Learning the game, or even parts of it, doesn’t always require a formal setting. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, it just happens. Gotta love osmosis.
Fastpitch tip for learning the finish of a backhand changeup
One of the most important pitches in fastpitch softball is an effective changeup. By effective I mean one where the pitcher can go through her motion and appear to throw it hard while having the ball come out much slower than expected.
This is as opposed to a changeup where the only thing that changes from the fastball is the grip, or one where in order to get the ball to go slower the pitcher slows her arm down. Those aren’t changeups. Those are just bad fastballs.
While I teach a few different types depending on the pitcher, the one I teach most often is the backhand change. Essentially, that is one where the back side of the hand leads the ball through the release zone.
Note that this is not a “flip” change. There is no flipping of the wrist at the end; I want the pitch to be dragged throw the release zone and thrown in a way that still has 12 to 6 forward spin. Flipping it puts backward spin on the ball, and often results in a pitch that comes in around belt high before traveling about 220 feet in the opposite direction.
The key to the finish of the backhand change as I teach it is to bend the elbow slightly and (again) drag the ball forward through the release zone until the pitcher’s arm is fully extended. After a momentary stop the ball comes out about hip high, immediately loses a bit of altitude to thigh high and then tails down around the plate. To do that the pitcher has to keep her hand moving forward and low until release rather than pulling it up as many like to do.
One cue I’ve used before is “punch your catcher in the nose.” In other words, go straight out instead up up and out. It’s worked pretty well, but it still requires the pitcher to do a little visualization.
So here’s another option. Have the pitcher line up sideways to a backstop with stride foot (left foot for a righty) right against the bottom of the screen. Then have her get her arm in the proper position (without the ball), pick out a spot on the screen that’s the right height and have her stab her fingers straight into the chain link fencing.
You might not want to have her go full speed, especially at first, to avoid jammed fingers.If you can’t get to a field, you can also do it into a tarp or even a shower curtain at home, as long as there is something specific to move the fingers toward.
Have the pitcher do it multiple times, until she starts to get the feel of what it’s like to go out straight instead of up. Then you can back her off the screen a bit and try the finish, or go back out to the pitching plate and see if there is improvement.
It’s simple yet effective. I only came up with this idea recently and so far it’s helped every pitcher I’ve tried it with.
If you have a pitcher who is struggling to keep her hand going out directly instead of bending the elbow or otherwise pulling up, give this a try. It just might work.
What are some other ideas you’ve tried to accomplish the same thing? How effective have they been? Anything you’ve tried that failed horribly? Go ahead and share – you’re among friends.
Sticking with the change
Regular Life in the Fastpitch Lane readers know that I am a huge fan of the changeup. I believe it’s essential if a pitcher is going to keep hitters off balance instead of getting comfortable in the batter’s box.
Still, it can be tough for a pitcher to stick with it when it’s not working. If she doesn’t throw if for a strike the first time there is a temptation to just abandon it in favor of other pitches.
What’s odd is that if the other pitches don’t work she usually doesn’t abandon them. It seems peculiar to the change.
That’s what made what I observed tonight so interesting. I was watching a high school sectional game between two very good teams. The pitcher for the team I was rooting for was definitely having trouble with her change. Not just a little trouble either.
She was throwing them high – catcher has to jump up for them high. And she was throwing them low – as in rolling into the plate. In fact, I only remember her throwing one for a strike, called or swinging. Even on her best day it’s not her best pitch, but it’s usually more effective than it was today.
Yet she kept throwing it. Whether it was the pitcher, the catcher or the coach, when the situation called for a change they called it.
And darned if it didn’t help. As the hitters were getting on to her other pitches, the change would give them a different look. Even if it rolled in, it was enough to throw off the rhythm.
The team I was rooting for won. And as I recall there were only two or three well-hit balls all day. It was a great illustration of why you want to keep throwing the change, no matter what the outcome of the pitch is.
A quarter for the release of a back of the hand changeup
There are all different types of changeups. Some are more effective than others, and some suit a particular pitcher better than others.
Most of the time I teach a backhand change, which requires the pitcher to drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first. But sometimes that one doesn’t work. So the backup plan is the back of the hand change.
With this pitch, you bring it down normally, then spin the hand around so the little finger is facing the plate, with the back of your hand facing your thigh.
One of the challenges of the back of the hand changeup is learning to get the hand spun around at the proper time so the ball actually does come out the other side. If you don’t it just becomes a bad fastball, or maybe a handshake change at best.
Young pitchers in particular don’t always understand how quickly the hand needs to turn, so here’s an activity they can do to get the hang of it. All they need to do is take a quarter (or a half dollar or a silver dollar, anything round and decently sized) and spin it counter-clockwise on the table (for a right handed pitcher; a lefty spins it clockwise).
The idea is to get the coin spinning as fast as you can while turning the hand in the proper direction. Pitchers can challenge themselves to see how long they can keep the coin spinning with a tight rotation.
A little time spent indoors on a rainy day can make a huge difference out on the field.