A pitcher’s mix is constantly evolving. With Jeff Sullivan’s help, we’ve already pointed out how Astros righty Justin Verlander rediscovered his high fastball and then his slider. In the course of finding those pitches, Verlander lost one of his other pitches, though — namely, the changeup.
“It was horrible, almost unusable,” said Verlander at the World Series of his least-thrown pitch. The pitcher fooled with some drastic changes when he joined the Astros and then gave up. This might not actually seem that foreign: something that once came easy suddenly becomes difficult. It happens to everyone, not just former Cy Young winners. And thinking or trying harder doesn’t necessarily solve the situation. Sometimes it’s necessary just to take a day off, return at a later time, and find that old necessary ease.
It seems that Verlander had the same issue with his changeup.
“It just kind of showed up, I can’t even really figure out what it was,” said Verlander of the pitch. “Out of nowhere, around two weeks ago, I started throwing it again.” We may even see it tonight in World Series Game 2, when Verlander steps to the mound.
It’s not that success for Verlander is contingent on the changeup. He’s slowly been throwing it less and less often over the years, even through some otherwise excellent seasons.
The decline isn’t smooth, but the trend is clearly downward.
If you look at the horizontal movement on the pitch over the season, four basic versions of the pitch emerge: the changeup that once was, a changeup that was better earlier this year, a changeup that shouldn’t have been thrown much and wasn’t, and then — sometime very recently — a return to at least early-season form.
Lower on this chart is better. Since Verlander said he re-found the pitch a couple of weeks ago, and you can see some of his best movement of the year has come in his last few starts, let’s outline the four changeups we’ve seen so far.
|2012 (peak usage)||8.8||4.2||2.3|
In all cases, a bigger number is better.
As Verlander has slowly inched his release point up recently, he’s gotten more drop on many of his pitches. This year, he’s had some of the best drop on his changeup and slider in recent memory. What he’s done these last few starts is return to his old fade — now the ball moves away from left-handers as much as it used to — and retained that new drop. In terms of movement, it has the potential to be the best changeup he’s thrown.
Here’s what it looked like in the last start.
Excuse me while I fan myself.
Of course, how he got there is still interesting. Verlander worked with pitching coach Brent Strom and fiddled around, but he couldn’t point to any one change that made the difference.
“I threw one in a game and some in a bullpen, and me and Strommy were like, ‘What the hell was that?'” laughed Verlander. “I fooled with some different stuff, and maybe through fooling with different stuff, when I was like ‘Screw it, I’m just going to go back to it,’ then it was like, ‘Oh!'”
Our bodies and minds are complicated entities; there’s no simple wiring. We don’t pull a circuit out and solder it somewhere else and fix the machine. Instead, we bang our heads against the wall, we try new things, we stress, we complain, we go by feel, we check our work, and we fail. Sometimes, we relax and everything pops back into focus.
“I wish I could explain it to you,” summed up Verlander. “I wish I could explain it to myself, because I’m sure it will evade me again and I wish I could tell myself how to get it back.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.