Prospect Notebook: Changing the Fastball Academy
We’ve referred to State College as the “fastball academy” the last few years. But this year there’s a new focus for Spikes pitchers: the changeup.
“We’re just trying to teach these guys how to pitch,” Spikes’ pitching coach Justin Meccage said. “Mainly the changeup, and how important that changeup is in helping the fastball. We’ve concentrated fast/change, more heavily on the change this year than in the past. I think it’s helping our guys. The pitch counts, you’re seeing them down a little bit. You’re seeing a lot more early contact. It’s a nice thing to see.”
The Spikes pitchers have seen good results this week. Luis Heredia went four shutout innings in his debut on Thursday, working mostly with a fastball/changeup combo. The next night Clay Holmes went five shutout innings, needing 70 pitches to do so, thanks to an improved changeup.
Meccage worked with both pitchers throughout extended Spring Training on the pitch. Holmes wasn’t comfortable with the pitch early in the year, but really focused on pounding the pitch a month in to extended Spring Training. On Friday he was comfortable enough to use it in all counts.
Heredia was a similar situation. He didn’t have his change at the beginning of extended Spring Training, but was pushed in that area heading in to the season. Heredia’s work and how well he responded to Meccage in that time sealed his assignment to State College. And he showed a nice changeup during his debut, fooling a lot of hitters and getting several strikeouts on the pitch.
Holmes and Heredia have worked to really get comfortable with the pitch, while Jake Burnette, Jason Creasy, and Joely Rodriguez all threw the pitch before.
“I’ve thrown it for a while, so I already had one when I came,” Burnette said of the pitch. “So we’ve just been trying to develop it. Looks pretty good. We’ve been throwing a lot more to hitters and it helps a lot trying to throw it to hitters in games and real situations.”
Jason Creasy threw the change before, but has worked lately to disguise the pitch. He’s also been locating the pitch well and it’s shown good break in his two starts this season.
“I’ve been able to get it to where it looks exactly like my four-seam, so between the two you can’t really tell until it’s too late,” Creasy said.
On Sunday night, Joely Rodriguez struggled throwing his slider for strikes. His slider is usually his best pitch, although his change ranks number two. And the change was good enough on Sunday that Rodriguez was able to use it to get through five innings, despite struggling with command issues.
The focus on the changeup is good to see. It’s a key pitch that pitchers need if they want to remain a starter. All you have to do is look at Brad Lincoln recently to see that. When his changeup was on in his last start, he pitched well. When his changeup has been absent, he’s struggled. The main reason the change is important is that it throws people off your fastball.
“There is no better pitch in baseball to make the fastball play up than the changeup,” Spikes’ manager Dave Turgeon said. “Even not a well placed changeup, but one that is thrown with arm speed and sold is a good pitch to get them off the fastball. I think it’s all about selling that pitch.”
The best changeups are ones that come from the same arm slot and same arm speed as the fastball. This allows pitchers to disguise the pitch like Jason Creasy has done, making it very difficult for the hitter to adjust to an off-speed pitch that looks like a fastball out of the hand. This is usually accomplished by removing a finger from behind the ball, allowing you to throw the pitch from the same slot, but with less force.
The changeup is also good from a health standpoint. The pitch usually has movement, and I’ve heard some in the game that feel it’s the most chased pitch in baseball. However, unlike a breaking ball, you can throw a changeup all day with no concerns of arm health. That’s not the case with breaking pitches. Throw a slider an excessive amount of times, and you’re looking at a potential arm injury.
The Spikes don’t have a pitcher who has a plus changeup right now, but all five starters have a feel for the pitch, with a few having the potential for plus changeups down the line. Luis Heredia was one who flashed a potential plus changeup in his debut. Guys like Jason Creasy, who can disguise the pitch well and throw it with some movement, can also have a plus change just because of that deception. For all of these pitchers, there will not only be the usual focus on fastball command, but more of a focus this year on improving the changeup.
“The changeup that you see in September I hope is not the same changeup you see here in June,” Turgeon said. “I hope it’s got a little more down action, I hope it’s a little more down in the zone, I hope it’s got a little more arm speed. All those things, I don’t anticipate that not happening.”
The Pirates Have a Knuckleball Prospect
Left-hander Justin Ennis was taken in the 33rd round of the 2010 draft. The success rate of any 33rd round pick is going to be low. Ennis is a left hander with a mid-80s fastball, which made it even more unlikely that he would have success beyond A-ball. The left-hander has spent the last two seasons going back and forth between State College and West Virginia, and finds himself in State College for the third season. Only this time, he’s got a new pitch.
With about two weeks to go in extended Spring Training, Ennis picked up a knuckleball.
“We were down in Florida and someone asked me to throw it in the bullpen,” Ennis said. “So I threw it, and he was like ‘alright, throw a couple in the game’. So I threw a couple and before I knew it he was telling catchers ‘just keep calling it’. From then on it’s just been pretty much knuckleball, fastball from here on out.”
Ennis has made three appearances so far for State College this year, and the pitch has been inconsistent. He’s still learning what the pitch is doing, which will help him locate the pitch. The pitch is more R.A. Dickey style than it is Tim Wakefield, as Ennis throws it with two fingers, rather than four. Considering he’s been throwing it for about three weeks now, the pitch looks good.
On Sunday, Ennis came in to pitch the eighth inning. He needed just six knuckleballs to retire the side in order, locating all of them in the zone. The first batter tried a first pitch bunt, but was thrown out by Ennis. The second batter struck out looking on three pitches. The batter looked at the first pitch, missed badly on a swing with the second pitch, and watched the third pitch float in to the zone for strike three. Ennis needed two more pitches to get a fly out to center field.
His prospect status doesn’t change much. Right now he’s a 24 year old pitcher in short season ball. But the addition of the pitch definitely makes him an interesting guy to watch. His mid-80s fastball isn’t much, but after seeing a 65 MPH knuckleball float by, an 85 MPH fastball probably looks like 95 to opposing hitters. It should be interesting to see if the Pirates start to move him up after he gets more comfortable using the pitch.
Harold Ramirez Out With a Medical Condition
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed outfielder Harold Ramirez for $1.05 M last year, making him their second highest paid amateur international free agent ever. He was given the aggressive assignment to the Gulf Coast League this year at the age of 17, but has yet to play a game.
The outfielder is currently sidelined with an undisclosed medical condition, but is rehabbing the injury. He’s currently on pace to join the lineup in another week.