Friday, July 06, 2007

The Best Pitch in Baseball – For Better or Worse

Velocity diminishes with age, split-fingered fastballs and curveball pitchers inevitably go down with arm injuries, and mediocre sliders wind up in the bleachers all too often. The changeup is old reliable. A simple pitching concept, changing speeds, when perfected, can make the difference between mediocrity and dominance, or in this case, pitching in the Yanks bullpen or being out of baseball.

Edwar Ramirez found himself out of baseball in 2004, after being released by the Angels twice in one season, never ascending past A ball. Three years, and one additional pitch later, Ramirez made his major league debut for the Yankees, striking out the side against the heart of the Twins lineup Tuesday night. His minor league stats are staggering, 80 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings between AA and AAA this season, while posting a miniscule 0.62 ERA, allowing a .128 BAA, and walking only 17. All thanks to the changeup.

The jury remains out on Ramirez’ major league potential, but with the Yanks bullpen in shambles, let’s see what he has got. The league may figure him out after the reports get out, then again he could become another Trevor Hoffman. People like to disregard 26-year-old prospects as over the hill, history says otherwise. Many players, particularly pitchers that rediscover themselves, blossom late and pitch into their 40’s.

Back to the change-up. It is the best pitch in baseball. Every pitcher should have it in the arsenal. All youth pitchers should learn to throw changes before breaking balls, more effective, less chance of injury. With Trevor Hoffman, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux, amongst others, as evidence, a pitcher with a decent fastball, good location, and a nasty changeup can dominate major league hitters without ever hitting 90 on the radar guns. The best change ups require similar arm action to the fastball. Ramirez seems to posses the tools, if he can keep hitters honest with his fastball he will be successful. Just having a reliever that does not walk someone every outing is a welcome sight for the Yanks.
Across the clubhouse, Kei Igawa is an example of what happens to a change-up pitcher with a terrible fastball. Igawa insists on throwing high fastballs, a mistake for a pitcher lacking overpowering stuff, which has trouble locating pitches. His out pitch is the change-up, proven effective in the few positive outings this season, albeit it very few. But Igawa continues to fall behind in counts, allowing batters to sit fastball, rendering his changeup useless, since hitters can just wait it out. A lifeless fastball, up in the zone, typically over the middle of the plate, is paradise for hitters. Any doubts, check Kei Igawa’s ERA. It is all a result of not throwing strikes, and not locating the fastball.

A tale of two pitchers and one pitch. A $40 million Japanese import with high expectations and a career minor leaguer making minimum wage, hoping to survive. In the twisted world of baseball, the minor leaguer has the bigger upside. The Yankees have nothing to lose at this point, throw Ramirez into the fire. Let’s see what he has, it cannot possibly be worse than Igawa, or as frustrating to watch as Farnsworth and Proctor, can it be.


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