Sean Doolittle remembered how difficult it could be to face a pitcher whose changeup and fastball spun the same way coming out of his hand. So after converting to pitching as an A’s minor leaguer in 2011, Doolittle began searching for a grip that would make his changeup mimic the rotation of his four-seam fastball.
The pitch in some ways proved as difficult to throw as it was to hit. Over the next few years, Doolittle said, he tried about 10 different changeup grips without finding a good fit, sometimes settling on one only to lose the feel for it a few weeks later. As a result, while the A’s closer technically had a changeup during his first several seasons in the majors, he rarely threw it in games – and even then with little sense of purpose.
“I didn’t really have a ton of confidence with it,” Doolittle said. “So when the catcher would put the sign down, I would usually bounce it, kind of like a waste pitch. It was something I really didn’t want to get hurt with.”
Late last year, Doolittle began experimenting with a new grip, copied from his younger brother Ryan, a right-hander in the A’s organization. Resembling a split-finger fastball, with the forefinger and middle finger resting on either side of the top seams, it allows Doolittle to throw the pitch with the same arm action and speed as his fastball yet still generate the lower velocity and movement that define a changeup.
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After Doolittle threw several changeups in the A’s season opener April 4, including one to strike out White Sox outfielder Austin Jackson, A’s manager Bob Melvin pronounced them “the best changeups we’ve ever seen him throw.” In his first five appearances this season through Thursday, Doolittle had thrown his changeup on 15.3 percent of his pitches, according to FanGraphs – up from 3.4 percent for his career.
I feel really confident with it. It’s something where you kind of set the grip and throw it as hard as you can, and the grip kind of causes it to tumble. I’ve been working on it this spring and feel a lot better. It’s such a feel thing. If you ask 10 guys how they throw their changeup, you’ll get 10 different philosophies.
A’s reliever Sean Doolittle
“I feel really confident with it,” Doolittle said. “It’s something where you kind of set the grip and throw it as hard as you can, and the grip kind of causes it to tumble. I’ve been working on it this spring and feel a lot better.
“It’s such a feel thing. If you ask 10 guys how they throw their changeup, you’ll get 10 different philosophies.”
While the theory behind the changeup is consistent – keeping hitters off-balance with a pitch that ideally resembles a fastball in delivery, release point and effort but comes in slower and breaks downward – Doolittle’s point about method is borne out in the A’s clubhouse, where several pitchers said they are trying to use the pitch more this season.
15.3 Percentage of A’s reliever Sean Doolittle’s pitches this season that are changeups
Curt Young, the A’s pitching coach, said the organization encourages pitchers to throw the changeup because when executed well it can lead to early outs, lower pitch counts and high ground-ball rates. Young also said it can be one of the toughest pitches to master.
“You’re so used to throwing fastballs with two fingers, breaking balls with two fingers,” Young said. “So moving the ball around in your hand while trying to create that same arm speed, arm whip, whatever you want to call it – sometimes that can be hard to grasp onto.”
Finding comfortable grip is key
The key for many pitchers, Young said, is finding a grip comfortable enough to throw with the same arm action as a fastball. In that sense, Ryan Madson was fortunate. The veteran reliever, signed by the A’s last offseason, has one of the better changeups in baseball and said he still uses the grip he learned as a 9-year-old from the grandfather of one of his youth-league teammates.
Madson throws what’s commonly known as a circle changeup, because the tips of the thumb and forefinger meet to form a circle on the inside of the ball. His middle and ring fingers lie across the top seams “like brakes,” and when he throws, the ball “just rolls out” along those two fingers.
“The pitch is all about deception – you’ve got to have the same arm speed; you’ve got to make it look exactly like the fastball,” Madson said. “The grip will do some of the work. But there’s also multiple ways to slow the ball down while keeping the same arm action.”
Madson said his way is to hold his wrist back during his delivery rather than finishing it through as he does on his fastball. He concedes that is “unnatural.” A more common method pitchers use is to simply push less off their back leg during their delivery, thereby generating less momentum toward the plate. Doolittle said some pitchers will even curl the toes of their back foot inside their cleat so they can’t push off the mound as much.
Madson, who throws a 93- to 96-mph fastball, said the grip of his changeup, when thrown perfectly, will take off 8 to 10 mph and the “wrist thing” another 5 mph. That leaves hitters seeing a pitch that resembles a fastball when it leaves Madson’s hand but comes in at 81 to 83 mph.
The pitch is all about deception – you’ve got to have the same arm speed; you’ve got to make it look exactly like the fastball. The grip will do some of the work. But there’s also multiple ways to slow the ball down while keeping the same arm action.
A’s pitcher Ryan Madson
The effect can be crippling. Madson has generated swings and misses on 31.4 percent of his changeups in his career, according to Brooks Baseball, and opponents have a .143 batting average against the pitch.
“The trick is you have to be so aggressive with it,” Madson said. “You have to act like you’re throwing a 100-mph fastball without telegraphing it, and without pulling off of it or being over-aggressive. Because hitters will pick up any subtle little difference. It’s a delicate, finite thing.”
‘It’s going to work or it isn’t’
A’s starter Kendall Graveman sought Madson’s advice this spring while working on his own changeup, which he throws using a modified version of the circle grip. Graveman holds his thumb under the ball – which he said gives him more control – and spaces his middle three fingers out evenly with the index finger curled on the inside of the ball, the middle finger resting on the inside top seam and ring finger outside the other seam.
Graveman, 25, arrived at the grip through trial and error. He said he has used “no less than 10” grips since college. He settled on this one last season and decided over the winter he’d experimented enough.
“This year, I said I’m going to hold this grip and I’m going to stick with it, and it’s either going to work or it isn’t,” Graveman said. “It’s just one of those things where you make your mind up and say, ‘I’m going to have conviction with it.’ ”
Regaining that sense of conviction was a big part of the offseason for reliever Ryan Dull. As a right-handed reliever, Dull said he hardly threw his changeup in the minors because he was facing mostly right-handed hitters, to whom the pitch runs back over the plate or inside. When he was called up by the A’s late last season, Dull started facing more left-handed hitters and said he realized he’d “lost the feel and the confidence” in the pitch.
Dull – who uses a modified version of the split-change in which his index finger rests on a lower seam, giving him something to “pull down on” – said confidence in how the ball will behave is key because when he releases his changeup, he isn’t focused on where the pitch is supposed to end up.
I find a spot on the catcher, and I’m going to try to throw it to that spot. And then the grip will take it where it’s supposed to take it.
A’s reliever Ryan Dull
“I find a spot on the catcher, and I’m going to try to throw it to that spot,” Dull said. “And then the grip will take it where it’s supposed to take it.”
Or sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the changeup will float instead of tumble, or the batter will guess or read what is coming.
Madson, who has allowed nine home runs on changeups in his career, said that while hanging breaking balls get a bad rap, “a changeup’s the more dangerous pitch when missed with.” Executed right, though, it can be a valuable weapon. There’s just not one right way.
“I like to pick guys’ brains,” Doolittle said. “Everybody seems to have a different thing that works for them.
“It’s just a weird feel thing.”