You immediately pick up the spin and conclude it is close enough to a fastball that he must be trying to go upstairs with a low-90s four-seamer. However, in the middle of your stride, you recall the hitting coach’s scouting report that says the pitcher has a tendency to turn to the changeup at any point. Suddenly, the spin doesn’t quite look like that four-seamer and you realize: Oh God, it’s not the fastball.
In a fraction of a nanosecond, you try to adjust to the speed differential. The message is sent from your brain to your extremities but it’s too late. With all of your momentum going towards the pitcher, it is like trying to stop a runaway train. Your hips are already driving forward but the pitch, like Delta Airlines, is slightly delayed on its arrival. It’s at this point when you confirm that the ball is tailing away and the bottom is falling out. You keep your hands back in efforts to react to the off-speed pitch.
You realize that there’s no way you can do anything of use with this pitch. It’s quickly fading down and away. At best, you can flick it over the heads of the left-side infielders or maybe foul it off into the seats and live to fight another pitch but, either way, you are committed. You can feel your hands depart and bring your bat around to swish its way through the swing zone. With your weight all on the front leg, you make a last ditch effort to punch the ball. By this point, the ball is at the southern-most portion of the strike zone and still falling.
The bat makes an empty woosh as it clears the plate.
Over 20 percent of all swings on Jared Burton’s changeup conclude like that – without any contact.
“I’ve been throwing it since college, really,” Burton says in his Carolina drawl. “It’s always been just a grip but comes out of my hand much harder than a changeup.”
Normal changeups, it is said, require about nine miles an hour of difference from the fastball. Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who is credited with having one of the best in the game today, has 12 miles per hour separating his mid-90s fastball from his low-to-mid-80s change. By comparison, Burton typically has just five. And yes, it does come out much harder than the average changeup. Burton’s 87.6 mile-per-hour velocity on his change registers higher than everyone but St. Louis’s Trevor Rosenthal (88).
Burton says his particular grip gives him bit more movement than the standard changeups. “It’s basically a circle-change grip but I hold it out on the tip of my fingers more and choke it. It’s much harder and it’s got late down movement. It’s been a good pitch for me.”
Over the past two years, it certainly has been a very good pitch for him. According to Fangraphs.com, the Pitch Value on his changeup has been worth 10.4 runs above average, the third-highest among relievers, trailing just Tyler Clippard and the aforementioned Rodney. And, just this year alone, opponents are hitting .152 off it, one of the lowest marks in the game.
The action has earned it a different label than just "changeup". After all, calling it a changeup would be a disservice to how impressive a specimen the pitch actually is. “I throw it like changeup but it’s much harder with splitter movement hence the ‘splangeup’ - splitter action.”
“I can throw it any time, righty or lefty,” Burton boasts. “It’s more of a swing-and-miss pitch but I can throw it for a strike a good bit. I can kind of throw it more where it fades in the zone or where it has more downward movement.”
For the most part, pitchers tend to shy away from throwing their changeups to same-sided opponents. Teammate Brian Duensing acknowledges that he refrains from using his changeup on lefties because he feels the movement goes into their swings. Burton does not share that hesitation because of the variation he has on it, being able to drop it down or make it run. Over the past two seasons, he’s thrown 642 changeups – 315 to lefties and 327 to righties.
It is confidence in the pitch that helped earn Burton a two-year deal with the Minnesota Twins.
Now down 1-2 in the count, you step out of the box to clear your mind and regroup.
That last pitch was all types of nasty. Over 30,000 people in the stadium and a million more watching from the comforts of their homes saw you look foolish. It’s late in the game. Your team needs a couple runs to get back in this thing but the opportunities are wearing thin.
What’s next? He’s got a mid-90s fastball that he can waste over the zone and change your eye level but he also has a decent slide piece that can cut down-and-in. Of course, you cannot forget a possible repeat performance of the changeup - he throws it great deal when he has a kill shot.
You dig back into the batter’s box while requesting time and go through the possibilities. All in all, it feels like a guess. Look for the hard stuff up or in while trying to fight off the soft stuff down in the zone. Protect.
You put your hand down, give the bat a few firm shakes towards the pitcher, raise the bat back up to your shoulder, exhale and settle in.
Always keep hitters guessing. Play the mind game.
“I never get too predictable,” Burton admits, repeating what pitching coaches have preached to him for more than a decade. “I like to be confident on all pitches but primarily everything works off my fastball command. I concentrate on that first in the bullpen, get my fastball command down and make sure I am getting out front with my release point and my off-speeds work off of that.”
Predictability can be a pitcher’s worst enemy. A changeup is called a changeup because it is supposed to be a change from the fastball. What’s more, too many non-fastballs help hitters read the spin and the break. A solid fastball is needed in order to make the change work properly. Burton throws his changeup a lot but recognizes the need to mix in other offerings like his two fastballs -- a four-seam and two-seam – as well as his slider.
Burton’s control of his fastball has not been was it was a year ago. According to PitchF/X data, in 2012 he threw his fastball in the zone 58 percent of the time. This year the fastball has been in the zone just 46 percent of the time, one of the reasons he has walked a few more batters than he would have liked. That, in addition to a slight groin tweak, may have played a role in his work in the month of June and his subsequent demotion in the bullpen’s hierarchy.
In June, he entered 10 games, worked 9.2 innings and allowed 14 hits with 6 walks that led to 9 runs. Opponents went 14-for-43 (.326) with seven extra base hits, including two home runs. Burton earned three losses in that stretch and fell out of favor for use in the eighth inning.
Burton did not blame the tweaked groin or any mechanical changes or arm ailments. He also did not rush out for answers by examining video or seeking assistance from outside sources for his disappointing month.
“It’s just a part of the game, really,” he says. “It’s a little harder to get over the ones where you feel you are executing but not getting results, but you just have to ride it out. You can’t ride the peaks and valleys, you have to stay right in the middle. You have to know that 70-75 games that if you stick with your stuff, it is going to work out.”
That, in essence, is the fundamental reasoning in the sabermetric theory of Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP. Over the course of a season, a pitcher who strikes out hitters at a high rate, does not walk many and allows few home runs should be the benefactor of decent mainstream statistics like ERA over the course of a season. Continuing to do the basics like get strikeouts while limiting walks and home runs, should bring the totals back down following rough patches like Burton experienced in June.
Burton has clearly stuck with his stuff. Since June ended, he has made 15 appearances, striking out 13, walking just two while not allowing a home run. As such, his overall numbers have rebounded nicely and his ERA dropped from 3.57 to 3.19.
It is consistency and trust in his stuff that has gotten Burton where he is today.
Sure, he has made some changes to his training regimen that he feels has improved his game. Following his second shoulder surgery while with Cincinnati, Burton took up swimming. He feels his performance benefited from this routine so he continues to incorporate the workout, both during and after the season.
Outside of that, it is business as usually for Burton. Establish the fastball, deploy the change and mentally prepare for the peaks and valleys.