PORT CHARLOTTE — James Shields calls the changeup the "great equalizer," his best pitch and a key ingredient in making him the choice as the Rays' opening day pitcher for the second straight year.
For reliever Joe Nelson, "If I didn't have it, I wouldn't be here right now." Andy Sonnanstine said if he can make his above-average, it could "take me to the next level."
And for touted prospect David Price, it's a pitch the Rays want him to work on as he prepares to move into the major-league rotation.
Several Rays have been working on their changeups during spring training, from starters Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir to rotation hopeful Jeff Niemann. The offspeed pitch is one of deception — intended to look exactly like a fastball coming out of the hand but arriving 8 to 10 mph slower, a lot of times with movement.
It's a "feel" pitch, which is why each pitcher has his own grip, depending on what is most comfortable — and what works — for him. But while each pitcher has different reasons for tinkering with the changeup, Niemann put it simply: "It's definitely one of the hardest pitches to get. But it's the best pitch in baseball, if you can throw it."
The difficulty lies with the delivery. Nelson said it's tough because you want your arm speed and angles to mimic your fastball.
"It's hard to think, 'Throw hard, but slow,' " Niemann said.
To decrease the velocity, the key is the grip. Some use versions of a two-seam grip (Shields), four-seam grip (Kazmir) or a type of circle (Price).
For some, the changeup can be a complementary pitch, keeping hitters honest with their fastball. For others, it can be their saving grace. Nelson said because he doesn't have a great breaking ball, he throws the changeup out of necessity. Closer Troy Percival said he didn't use one for most of his first seven or eight years, but when Shields taught him one day in spring training last season, he has used it ever since. Percival said he threw it about 30 times last year and likely will use it more this season.
"When you have the changeup working, you're never naked on the mound," Nelson said. "You can be not locating your breaking ball and not spotting up your fastball and if you have a good changeup, you've always got something in your back pocket. When nothing else is going right, if you have a changeup, it's hard to time."
Kazmir said he relied on his changeup a lot last season, when the left-hander wasn't as comfortable with his put-away pitch, the slider. With two power pitches, his fastball and slider, Kazmir said the changeup offers a different look, tailing away from the righties, and "when I'm throwing it good, it looks more like a split, comes down with late action."
Shields said he has never seen Kazmir throw so many changeups in a game as he has this spring. "Now he's throwing it, and it's got real good depth and it's actually become a pretty good pitch for him," Shields said. "Now that he has a slider and a changeup and a fastball … it's kind of a beautiful thing."
Shields credits his changeup with helping him get to the major leagues. When he "lost" his curveball in the minors, he lived off his changeup, a pitch he said can be easier to throw for a strike than a breaking ball. In one minor-league game, Shields remembers 65 of his 85 pitches were changeups. "At that point I was on the brink of release," he said. "I was trying to do anything to be successful."
Shields said about 30 percent of his pitches in games are changeups but admits other hard-throwing starters, such as Garza, don't need to throw as many. Garza has explosive stuff as it is with his mid 90s fastball and plenty of movement on his slider and curveball.
But Garza said he has improved his changeup this spring, taking a couple of miles per hour off of it. And while it's not a finished product, he says the pitch could "make my fastball that much more explosive."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.