Saunders: Rockies pitchers are learning to love the changeup. That’s a good thing

Bud Black loves the changeup.

That’s only natural. It’s a pitcher’s pitch, and the Rockies’ manager spent 15 seasons throwing one in the majors.

“Mine was OK,” Black said. “In my era (1981-95), we had a lot of guys with great changeups. Frank Viola had a good one. … Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux kind of set the standard. It’s such a good pitch here in Denver.”

I love the changeup, too, and I think it can be a big key for Rockies pitchers, though it’s a difficult pitch to master and takes some guys time to throw one in a big-league game.

In an era when baseball seems to be obsessed with power pitchers and power hitters, the changeup is the thinking pitcher’s weapon and a great equalizer. A perfect example: Rockies lefty Kyle Freeland, who’s currently on the injured list with a strained shoulder. He used the changeup last season to dramatically rebound after a bad 2019 season.

This season, the changeup is all the rage with Rockies pitchers.

Lefty Austin Gomber throws the best one among the starters, according to Black. Right-handers Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray are a close second, and both of them have found that the changeup is keeping hitters honest, denying them the chance to sit on their fastball or slider.

“All of the instruction and the willingness by Jon to change has taken hold,”  Black said of Gray’s decision to embrace the pitch. “Even in spring training there was an emphasis on the changeup for Jon, and he really bought into it. I’m really proud of Jon being willing to use the pitch in a game and living with the results.”

After four starts, Gray, who came into the league as a fastball-slider guy, is 2-1 with a 2.42 ERA.

Veteran right-hander Michael Givens has the best changeup among the relievers, according to Black. Others in the bullpen are using it to varying degrees of success.

Closer Daniel Bard throws his changeup about 7% of the time to keep hitters off-balance. He began throwing the pitch when he was 10.

“My dad was a former minor league catcher and he was a firm believer that the changeup was the best pitch in baseball,” said Bard, whose fastball averages 97.7 mph, while his changeup arrives at 89.4. “I’ve found that the higher you go up in levels in baseball — the good hitters, the best hitters, the top two or three in every lineup — are really good at recognizing spin.

“That’s what makes them elite. They can recognize a curveball or slider really early out of the hand. So sliders don’t necessarily work against guys like that.”

My two all-time favorite pitchers are Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and Red Sox Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. With his fastball-slider combination, Gibson was the epitome of a power pitcher.

Martinez, who stood just 5-foot-11 and weighed 175 pounds, was a remarkable combination of high velocity and finesse. In his prime, he threw an explosive fastball but his changeup ranks as one of the best pitches of all time.

“Pedro’s the first person I’ve ever seen with an above-average fastball and an above-average change-up,” fellow Hall of Famer Randy Johnson once said.

Martinez’s changeup came to the plate 10-11 mph slower than his fastball, but he threw the pitch with the same arm speed and arm slot as his fastball and it broke down and away from left-handed hitters. The ball dropped 8-10 inches and finished closer to the ground than the strike zone. Martinez could make the best hitters in the game look silly.

The Rockies will probably never have anyone as good as Martinez, but teaching their pitchers to love the changeup is a step in the right direction.

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