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Stephen Strasburg’s change-up is MLB hitters’ ultimate guessing game

“It’s like I got my index finger cut off,” Stephen Strasburg says of his change-up grip, “and I’m throwing a two-seam fastball with these other fingers.”
“It’s like I got my index finger cut off,” Stephen Strasburg says of his change-up grip, “and I’m throwing a two-seam fastball with these other fingers.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In the fall of 2009, Paul Menhart was a pitching coach in Class A and Stephen Strasburg was the first pick in the previous June's draft. Both worked for the Washington Nationals. They met in Viera, Fla., for the Nationals' instructional league, where young players can put in extra work after the minor league season, and then they headed west to the Arizona Fall League, where the best prospects in the game gather for a brief season.

“The hype back then was the electric fastball and the snapdragon curveball that he had,” said Menhart, now the Nationals’ major league pitching coach. “And what I noticed right out of the chute was I thought people were missing the boat. I thought the most effective pitch — and the pitch that was going to make him a superstar — was his change-up.”

It’s more than a decade later. Strasburg’s fastball is less electric but perhaps more effective. His curveball is a nasty, known commodity.

But walk through a major league clubhouse, and the pitch that makes the eyes of ballplayers bug out is that floating, fluttering change-up. It’s my favorite pitch in baseball. I don’t feel like I’m alone.

“Oh, my gosh,” Hunter Strickland said.

“It’s like a bowling ball,” Daniel Hudson said.

“It literally looks like it stops,” Brandon Snyder said, “and dies.”

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This spring, Strasburg is a World Series MVP who has twice re-signed with Washington — the latest a seven-year, $245 million deal that probably will keep him here for the entirety of his career. He has the reputation of being a complete pitcher.

Part of being complete is knowing how and when to deploy a change-up that plays perfectly off his two-seam fastball. When Strasburg was at San Diego State, he barely had to use the pitch because his fastball and curveball easily overwhelmed college hitters. But his first big league spring training camp was in 2010, and his catcher when he arrived was Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, who’s now in the Hall of Fame.

“I remember Pudge catching me the first couple of bullpens, and he was just raving about it,” Strasburg said of the change-up. “And I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ I felt good about throwing it even though I hadn’t used it a ton. And then once I got to the big leagues, he was calling it a lot, and I was like, ‘I’ll throw whatever he calls and just go with it.’ ”

The result is a wonder to watch, not only because of the action of the pitch but because of the embarrassing swings it induces. Hitting a baseball can be about guessing. Eliminate the guessing — be it by listening to the bang of a bat against a trash can or a manner less illicit — and the hardest task in sports becomes a heck of a lot easier. Long before the Houston Astros schemed to illegally swipe signs to let their hitters know what pitch was on the way, hitters were trained to notice any variance in a pitcher’s delivery that might tip off the subsequent pitch.

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Strasburg’s delivery offers no clues. The look of his body when the change-up is coming has no difference from when his fastball is on the way. The angle, or “slot,” of his arm is the same. The speed of his arm is the same. The only difference, from the hitter’s perspective: His fastball last year averaged 94.3 mph. The change-up comes in at 88.1, according to data compiled by FanGraphs. That’s not what Menhart describes as the “classic 10-mph separation,” but when you have four-tenths of a second to make a decision on whether to swing, it’s more than enough.

“It’s the sell that makes it effective,” Menhart said. “I use the analogy, in poker, if you ever watch those Texas hold ’em tournaments, guys have tells, whether they’re bluffing or not. He doesn’t have a tell when he throws this pitch.”

Which is exactly how Strasburg wants it and how he must think of it. When he throws his change-up — which he did just more than once every five pitches last year, the highest rate of his career — he grips the ball differently. It’s not a classic “circle change,” in which a pitcher essentially makes an “okay” sign with his thumb and index finger and then allows the ball to roll off his other three fingers. Rather, Strasburg holds his index finger away from the ball and grips it with his thumb underneath and his middle and ring fingers on top.

“It’s like I got my index finger cut off,” he said, “and I’m throwing a two-seam fastball with these other fingers.”

Some pitchers talk about the change-up as a “feel” pitch, and they spend time and effort manipulating the ball with their fingers. Strasburg actually approaches his change-up with power. He’s not only selling the hitter that it’s a fastball. He’s selling himself. That allows him to do everything else as he would when throwing a fastball and let the grip alter the ball’s flight.

“It’s going to do what it’s going to do,” Strasburg said. “But where my sights are is I’m going through the [catcher’s] glove, trying to knock over the glove.”

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The resulting action of the baseball is stunning. During spring training, other pitchers have examined Strasburg’s bullpen sessions, mostly to study the change-up. Hudson watched from off to the side last week. “It’s pretty special,” he said, and he wondered about the physics involved. Strickland, another reliever, has talked to Strasburg about his grip and his mentality. Snyder, a journeyman infielder who caught Strasburg’s offseason bullpen sessions at Nationals Park, marvels at the pitch.

“It’s coming out of his hand so quick that it seems like it gets to about where the dirt is — and stops,” Snyder said. “That’s the only way to explain it.”

Strasburg has such command of the pitch that he can throw it in counts that other pitchers would shy away from.

“It’s one of those pitches that you’re safe calling it at any time,” catcher Yan Gomes said. Gomes’s counterpart, Kurt Suzuki, heard this conversation and chimed in.

“It’s heavy, the action on it,” Suzuki said. “It’s almost like a [split-finger fastball]. It must have something to do with how big his hands are.”

Before he returned to the Nationals last year, Suzuki faced Strasburg 14 times as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He must have encountered the change-up, right?

“Yep,” he said. “I spit on it.”

Seriously?

“Nope. Swing and a miss.”

He’s not alone. Last year, opposing hitters managed a .140 batting average against Strasburg’s change-up, according to MLB.com’s Statcast data. That doesn’t account for all the swings and misses he generated earlier in at-bats. Only two pitchers who threw at least 100 change-ups — Cincinnati ace Luis Castillo and New York Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle — allowed a lower average against their change-ups. And that number compares favorably with Strasburg’s deathly curveball, on which he allowed a .161 average.

By virtue of his accomplishments — a 1.46 postseason ERA, the World Series victory, on and on — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher worth emulating. But the change-up, in how he throws it and how he sells it, can’t really be copied. Don’t even try. Just enjoy.

“How to teach it?” Menhart said. “I wish I knew how. I’d be a super-coach. He’s got a gift that allows him to feel comfortable in just letting it rip.”

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