I tell all of the parents and young pitchers in my flock to wait until high school to learn a breaking ball. I tell them this because I feel it saves them from the extra stresses that the curve or slider present (especially when thrown improperly), at a time when they need to master a more difficult to learn pitch – the changeup. Throwing a changeup early is a crucial step in development for all pitchers because…
You Don’t Need A Breaking Pitch to Succeed at Lower Levels.
The only pitchers who don’t throw changeups in the big leagues are those relievers who throw consistently in the mid to upper-90s. If you throw 96 with a slider, you don’t need a changeup. If you throw 93 in the big leagues, you need a changeup; that’s reality.
When young pitchers struggle, they are often suggested new pitches by inexperienced coaches rather than refocus their practice time on basics – improving location and getting ahead in counts. No one wants to hear it, but a well-commanded fastball is all a youth pitcher really needs – even a changeup is just a bonus.
Hitters simply aren’t good, at all, at that level. Yet, I often hear, “Well, I was getting hit hard so I added a curveball.” To this I respond, “What locations get hit hard? Down the middle? (Yes) If you hit more corners with your fastball, do you think you’d still be getting hit hard?” The answer is often no, but pitchers would rather throw more pitches into the mix than perfect a single one.
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Is It Crookedness or Speed Change?
So, I advise everyone to spend ages 12, 13, 14 and part of 15 throwing a changeup only and learning to pitch off of it. The biggest thing they’ll gain is awareness of how speed change affects a hitter. You don’t get this by throwing breaking balls, because usually the crookedness of the pitch is the reason for a swing and miss, not necessarily the speed change.
Because the changeup has drastically less break than a curveball, the reason a hitter will hit it poorly will because of the speed change and subsequent timing disruption. A deceptive but dead-straight changeup can be throw right down the middle of the plate – a bad location – but won’t get hit hard because the hitter’s swing will be off-time.
When a pitcher learns to rely on changing speeds with straight pitches, he sees greater cause and effect, which teaches him to manipulate the strike zone for optimal timing disruption.
Pitchers who rely on changeups quickly learn that, for example, a hard fastball inside followed by a changeup away will disrupt the hitter more than other sequences. They learn that three changeups in a row results in diminished returns, unlike three sliders in a row to a hitter who simply can’t read the break of a pitch. These lessons are unbelievably valuable in higher levels where hitters CAN hit breaking balls.
What Higher Level Tools Are You Building?
Lastly, pitchers have finite bullets, and every garbage curveball thrown at age 12 means one less changeup is thrown. Adding more pitches to the mix means each one gets less attention and thus less development. On top of this, pitchers aren’t learning cause and effect of speed changes, as we just discussed.
Additionally, what happens when that curveball isn’t working one day? Pitchers who are one-dimensional get killed when that one-dimension doesn’t show up. From a pitcher who’s played a lot of baseball, I can tell you that it’s rare to have your best stuff more than once every four or five starts. Most days, the arsenal is just “okay.”
Do you know how to pitch when your best stuff isn’t working? Do you still know how to get outs when the curve has no bite and the change isn’t very good? Learning to manipulate pitch sequences, the sides of the plate and speed change is what allows good pitchers to win even when their stuff isn’t very good.
The result of all this wasted developmental time as a youth is that pitchers don’t have the ability to get good hitters out at 16, 17 and 18 years old, when it really matters. Throwing a junky curveball to 13 year olds may work fine; throwing that same junky curveball at 17 will result in hard hits and high pitch counts – hitters won’t be fooled anymore.
But, a quality changeup and the knowledge of how to use it will endure at all levels of baseball. And, when coupled with a quality breaking ball later on, the pitcher suddenly has the ability to exploit any hitter- those who can’t hit speed changes, those who can’t hit crooked pitches, and the very best who can hit both individually, but not when combined.
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