In the hands of Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, the old-fashioned changeup is elevated to perfection.

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SLOW BALLS

Editor’s note

Terry McDermott’s new book, “Off Speed,” explores pitching, Felix Hernandez’s 2012 perfect game and life — one pitch, and one inning (or chapter) at a time. In our edited version of Chapter 9, McDermott dissects Felix’s favorite pitch, the changeup; the final inning of his perfect game (“one of the greatest exhibitions of off-speed pitches ever put on,” McDermott says); and the author’s connection to Iowa, and his continuing search for home.

When professional baseball began, pitchers were restricted in what they could do. They couldn’t throw hard. They couldn’t throw crooked. They couldn’t be sneaky. They were allowed to do one thing — throw the ball straight and, above all, slow, so the hitters could do what the fans paid to see them do — hit. Of course, pitchers immediately began finding ways to do all of the things that had been forbidden.

There is, then, irony in the fact that the dominant pitch of the last two decades is the only pitch the old-timers were allowed to throw — the slow ball. It has gone by many names since, and nobody calls it a “slow ball” anymore. We seem to finally have standardized the name as “the changeup.”

From the book:

“Off Speed” by Terry McDermott

Copyright © 2017 by Terry McDermott.

Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday

Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

The message that a fastball sends is among the most primal things in sport: Here, buddy; see if you can hit this. Little men with big arms make bigger men weep when they throw the fastball by them. The point of the changeup is nearly the opposite; it’s an invitation, not a challenge: Here; have some.

A normal changeup is indeed a change of pace from the quicker selections in a pitcher’s arsenal, sometimes 10 or 15 mph slower than a pitcher’s fastest pitch. It is thrown with a variety of grips but, whatever the grip, the one thing a successful changeup must do is persuade the hitter it is something other than what it is. This is accomplished mainly by making an arm motion and release as nearly identical to a fastball motion as is possible.

Hitters, like all humans, anticipate the future; most particularly, they anticipate the pitch that is coming. The human brain, with enough practice, can see a pitcher throw a ball and judge within milliseconds how hard and where that pitch is going. Sometimes the brain doesn’t even need to see the ball — ­just watching the arm and the hand that holds the ball can be enough.

 

Felix Hernandez displays the grip he uses for his changeup. (Rod Mar/The Seattle Times)
Felix Hernandez displays the grip he uses for his changeup. (Rod Mar/The Seattle Times)

The circle change is the most common grip today. The ball is held in the middle, ring and little fingers of the throwing hand. The index finger and thumb are beside the ball, nearly touching and forming a circle. The great advantage to the circle change is that, once the grip is set, no further manipulation is necessary. The ball can be thrown at a variety of speeds and retain its characteristic movement: for a right-hander, down and away from a left-handed hitter.

Many coaches believe the changeup has to be significantly slower than a pitcher’s fastball, as much as 10 mph, in order to “have separation” from the fastball. Almost all the great changeup pitchers of the past — think Pedro Martinez, Stu Miller, Trevor Hoffman and Jamie Moyer — earned their deception in large part by having this separation.

I asked Moyer once how he had the nerve to throw Little League fastballs to major-league hitters. His answer was absolutely lacking in the kind of masculine vanity so common among athletes: “I would never have had a career if it wasn’t for the pride of major-league hitters,” he said. “They were determined to never get beat by a fastball.”

Felix Hernandez throws one of the oddest changeups in baseball history. Foremost, it doesn’t have much of a change of speed. He uses a variation of the circle-change grip, and he throws the pitch faster than Moyer threw his fastball — in fact, faster than a lot of people throw their fastballs. “All of his pitches look just like his fastball,” said former Tampa Bay infielder Elliot Johnson. “The change is unique because he throws it so hard. Everything is exactly the same as his heater, then it drops out of the zone.”

Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez struck out 12 batters in his perfect game against Tampa Bay. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez struck out 12 batters in his perfect game against Tampa Bay. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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It is that movement, rather than differing speed, that gives the pitch its essential deceit. In the last three innings of his 2012 perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Hernandez threw more changeups than fastballs. He threw a couple changeups that broke almost 2 feet down and in to right-handed hitters.

 

TOP OF THE NINTH

Almost every year, one or more no-hitters is broken up in the ninth inning. Even worse, 13 perfect games have been lost with two outs in the ninth. Everybody at Safeco Field was nervous during the ninth inning on Aug. 15, 2012. Jesus Montero, the Mariners’ designated hitter that day, was praying with Franklin Gutierrez, Hernandez’s best friend on the team, in the dugout. “We were so nervous, it was unbelievable,” he said.

“I was sitting on the bench, shaking,” Gutierrez said.

The crowd was on its feet, chanting: “Let’s go, Felix.” There were so many cellphone cameras held aloft, it looked like a Rolling Stones concert.

Felix was hyped, too. He looked up at the big scoreboard in right-center field. He got the chills. “Wow,” he said to himself. “Now you gotta do it. These guys, these people over here, they’ve been great to me. Just finish it, please.”

He had barely been behind in the count all day. Controlling the count, in fact, was as important to his success as his dynamic stuff. But he started all three hitters in the bottom of the ninth with balls. First up was pinch-hitter Desmond Jennings. Catcher John Jaso called for a high breaking ball, hoping to steal a strike. Felix overthrew it and missed up. He got back in the count with a slider down the middle: Jennings took a wild swing and missed as the ball nearly hit the dirt. Felix went ahead with another slider on the outside corner for a called strike. Jennings spoiled a third slider. He then barely caught a piece of a 95 mph fastball on the outside edge. The crowd groaned. Then Felix put a 92 mph changeup on Jennings’ back foot. The pitch locked up Jennings: He swung feebly and missed for a swinging strike three. It looked like a lefty slider. Even though Jaso had been catching Felix all season, he was amazed.

Jeff Keppinger, a good contact bat, was the second pinch-hitter, for Johnson, who had struck out in both at-bats against Felix. Keppinger took a ball and a strike. Then he swung through an inside two-seamer that hit 95 mph on the radar gun. Hernandez was pumped. “It was the greatest sinker I ever threw,” Hernandez said. “That ball started in the middle of the plate and finished at his back.”

A 92 mph change induced an easy grounder to the left side. That left only Sean Rodriguez between Hernandez and a perfect game. The Safeco crowd was loud. The King’s Court was going nuts. Felix missed with a fastball. He missed with a slider. Both were outside. It was only his second 2-­0 count of the game. “No,” he thought. “Not the last hitter! Give me the ball.”

Felix Hernandez throws to the final batter, Sean Rodriguez, during his perfect game against Tampa Bay at Safeco Field. Rodriguez took a called strike three on a changeup, a pitch Hernandez used brilliantly that day. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Felix Hernandez throws to the final batter, Sean Rodriguez, during his perfect game against Tampa Bay at Safeco Field. Rodriguez took a called strike three on a changeup, a pitch Hernandez used brilliantly that day. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Rodriguez had gone to the plate thinking he might break the unwritten rule: maybe bunt and endure the wrath that surely would follow. But when the count went to 2-­0, he knew he’d get a fastball, and with it a chance to hit the ball in the gap or farther. The normal, almost mandatory pitch call in that situation would be fastball down the middle, just to get a strike.

Hernandez figured Rodriguez would be looking for a fastball and was probably prepared to swing at anything anywhere near the zone. He wanted to go off-speed. Jaso had been lectured consistently when he was in the minor leagues that you don’t have a choice in that count; you have to throw a fastball to get a strike. Jaso called slider. Felix was surprised but pleased. Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis was just surprised. “What a call,” he said, his eyebrows raising slightly.

Rodriguez swung over it for strike one.

“I thought it was the nastiest pitch he threw the whole game,” Jaso said.

At 2-­1, Jaso called for a curve. Felix threw a humpbacked beauty. Rodriguez flinched, then froze. He took the pitch for a called strike two.

Hernandez took a deep breath on the mound. He cautioned himself to stay cool: “Don’t try to be too beautiful. Just make a good pitch.”

He looked in for the sign. Jaso signaled for the change. “Right there with that changeup, that was the only time I thought, ‘We have to throw a changeup here, because that’s his pitch.’ … There was no other pitch to end the game with,” Jaso said.

King Felix threw a change at 92 mph to the low-­inside corner. Rodriguez couldn’t pull the trigger. He took it for a called strike three.

Felix Hernandez is greeted by Mariners catcher John Jaso after his perfect game. Jaso called for a slider, curve and changeup on the last three pitches of the game, even after Hernandez had fallen behind 2-0 in the count to Sean Rodriguez. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
Felix Hernandez is greeted by Mariners catcher John Jaso after his perfect game. Jaso called for a slider, curve and changeup on the last three pitches of the game, even after Hernandez had fallen behind 2-0 in the count to Sean Rodriguez. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Over the entire game, Tampa Bay hitters swung and missed 24 times, 19 times in just the last four innings. Only two of those swings were at fastballs. The remaining 22 were on off-speed pitches. Felix threw two fastballs and 13 off-speed pitches in the ninth inning to finish the game.

The most effective pitch in one of the best games ever thrown was the changeup, the ancient slow ball, the oldest pitch of all, finally raised to royalty.

 

PARTS MISSING

I watched this game, as I watch almost all Mariners games now, on my computer in Southern California, where I have settled.

When I first moved here, I discovered I could get out-of-market radio broadcasts over the internet. I spend a lot of time sitting at a computer, and the idea of doing so with Dave Niehaus, the Mariners’ broadcaster, purring in my ear, was too irresistible to ignore. I signed up. Later, when televised games over the internet became available, I signed up for that, too.

Niehaus has since gone to that big broadcast booth in the sky, where he no doubt enjoys a grand salami on rye every now and then, but I continue, during the season, to tune in to the games almost every day. By this point, my activity has moved beyond fandom. The team might not have a chance, but I’m there every day, regardless. There is no communion with other fans. There probably wasn’t another Mariners fan within 5 miles of me that day. Watching has transcended habit into ritual, like the prayers of sinners long since fallen by the wayside.

Author Terry McDermott, fourth from left in the back row, is pictured in his childhood local newspaper after finishing second in a tournament with his Cascade, Iowa, Junior American Legion baseball team.
Author Terry McDermott, fourth from left in the back row, is pictured in his childhood local newspaper after finishing second in a tournament with his Cascade, Iowa, Junior American Legion baseball team.

Being a fan can be an odd choice. I’ve wondered for a long time about baseball and how it fits in my life. It’s about the only thing I’ve kept from Cascade, Iowa, my boyhood home, certainly the only thing whose stature has not diminished but grown in me in the years since.

Bart Giamatti, the Yale Classics professor who inexplicably became commissioner of baseball, once wrote that sport and its pursuit of perfection had become a sort of secular religion: “The gods have fled, I know. My sense is the gods have always been essentially absent … I believe we have played games, and watched games, to imitate the gods, to become godlike in our worship of each other and, through those moments of transmutation, to know for an instant what the gods know.”

Well, yes and no. For me, it is not just the gods who are long gone. Absences abound. It is sometimes easier to count the things that are present than the things that have left. I’m not alone in this, I think. We are, all of us, trying to find what we have lost. Some of us hold on to most of what we have, dropping just bits and pieces. Others shed whole skins and several layers beneath. For me, a central part of what I miss has always been the sense of community we had in our hometown. Baseball was inseparable from that.

I enjoyed — ­no, relished — ­the anonymity of big-city life when I discovered it as an adult. It took me years to realize what I had given up in exchange. Belief, belonging, humility and family were among the things I left behind; I have yet to recover any of them completely. Yet baseball remains and provides a faint trail back to that past while my life tumbles on. Baseball offers an invitation, of a sort, to return.

Our culture today prizes acceleration, explosion, flash. Baseball at its best is a game played by craftsmen —­ craftsmen of a very high level, yes, but craftsmen. The game is a grind. You do not persist with flash. That’s the secret beauty of baseball. It’s not made from some magic dust sprinkled over a cornfield. It’s a construction, something built over a very long time. It’s made by hand.

Terry McDermott’s new book explores pitching, Felix Hernandez’s perfect game and the search for home.
Terry McDermott’s new book explores pitching, Felix Hernandez’s perfect game and the search for home.

We valued that sort of modest beginning where I’m from. Spend enough time in rural Dubuque County, and the number of people missing small body parts or functions begins to seem almost usual. Hay balers and combines are cranky machines, and cows can be mean and uncooperative. Let’s not even talk about hogs. In my own family, one of my grandfathers, while clearing a field of stumps, lost his sight to a dynamite charge that took too long to reveal itself; a cousin lost a hand to a baler — a machine that scoops up new-­mown hay and straw and packages it into twine-wrapped cubes. They’re doubtless much more efficient machines now than they were then, but in the years when I worked in the fields, these machines constantly jammed and broke, and somebody was forever sticking his hand in where it shouldn’t have been stuck. Mangled digits and lost appendages were a cost of doing business.

Visitors to the Midwest often describe the region as a giant flat plain where the fields form checkerboards, rigid squares proceeding mile after mile with martial precision. The patchwork of fields in eastern Iowa isn’t that. Instead, it is a crazy quilt of rectangles, triangles, circles, oblongs, long swooping curves and blobs — ­almost every shape there is but a square, all of the shapes following the land’s soft swells, bound by limestone gravel roads; small crooked rivers; and ancient stands of maple, hickory, black walnut and oak that somehow survived the mill’s blades. It’s gorgeous country, and I don’t get back as much as I should.

When I do, people ask: “Which one are you?” Mac’s boy, I say, the oldest. “Umm. Yeah. Want a beer?”

I left town in 1968, and Mac left us all for good 18 years later. Still, identifying my father was all the information anyone here needed to file me in the proper folder.

“And where are you now?” they ask, as if I had been a particularly hard one to keep track of.

This turns out to be an excellent question. I think the right answer is that I, like us all, have for a very long time been trying to find my way back home.