As Keone Kela recalled the pitch he threw Tuesday night to escape a bases-loaded jam in his major league debut, he dropped this nugget on the media who had gathered around him:
“I didn’t have a changeup until spring training,” he said.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux suggested the changeup to Kela during the pitching minicamp in January, and 3 1/2 months later it helped the Texas Rangers win their first game of the season.
Maddux made a similar suggestion a year earlier to Shawn Tolleson, who now rates as the Rangers’ best bullpen piece against left-handed hitters. Maddux has tried to get Nick Tepesch to throw it, telling him it’s the missing piece. Maddux wants to see Anthony Ranaudo throw it more.
Heck, Maddux wants every Rangers pitcher to throw it. And, more and more, the pitchers are embracing the changeup and seeing themselves get better.
“Command the fastball and change speeds: That’s your recipe to win,” Maddux said. “The changeup looks like a fastball. It stays on the same trajectory. Hitting is timing. Those guys that know what your velocity is, they see your arm come through, they’re going off the fastball.
“It’s an illusion.”
Generally speaking, the changeup is best when it’s 10 percent slower than a fastball, Maddux said. When a right-hander throws one, it dives down and away from left-handed hitters. A lefty’s changeup moves down and away from righty hitters.
A changeup isn’t necessarily a strikeout pitch, but it’s a terrific ground ball pitch. The latest evidence came in the seventh inning Tuesday, when Kela got Marcus Semien to bounce a 3-2 changeup into an inning-ending double play.
Maddux had a changeup during a career that spanned 15 big league seasons. His brother, Greg, had one that helped him reach the Hall of Fame last year. So did Tom Glavine, also a part of the 2014 Cooperstown class, and 2015 electee Pedro Martinez.
“You look at your most recent Hall of Famers, what was their go-to pitch?” Maddux said.
That should be a ringing endorsement for Rangers pitchers to add the changeup. Those who have or have focused on perfecting it are glad they have it.
Tolleson added the changeup before last season. Left-hander Derek Holland said that he spent his final spring tuneup Sunday focusing on sharpening his changeup.
“I’m a better pitcher because of it,” Tolleson said. “It’s definitely helped against lefties a lot. A couple of years ago, they would have taken me out.”
Each of the Rangers’ five starters throws one. Left-hander Ross Detwiler’s first strikeout Wednesday night in a late game at O.co Coliseum came on an 84-mph changeup to Billy Butler, a right-handed hitter.
Right-hander Nick Martinez, who starts Thursday afternoon in the fourth and final game against Oakland, features the changeup and has one of the best on the team.
He started zeroing in on it in 2013 after High A pitching coach Steve Mintz challenged the starters to throw only fastballs and changeups the first time through the batting order.
“That’s when it really took off for me,” Martinez said. “If you want to be a big-league starter, you’ve got to have a changeup. It changed my game big time. Opened my eyes. Other than my fastball, it’s my favorite pitch. The more times I use it, the better off I’ll be.”
That would appear to be the case for every Rangers pitcher. If three of the past four pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame featured it, why not give it a whirl?
“When the changeup is working for me, I’m on,” said Holland, who had a changeup when the Rangers drafted him in 2006. “To me, it’s a very good pitch. It makes my fastball look that much faster. That’s why I try to use it as much as possible.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760