The changeup is a hard pitch to master. To throw it effectively requires touch and pinpoint accuracy. It is imperative that batters are unaware of when the changeup is coming. Deception is key. Upon release, a good change-up mimics a fastball. The pitcher’s arm speed and release point need to be the exact same for both pitches. To do this and still maintain a significant difference in speed is quite difficult. When executed correctly, the pitch can be devastating. It takes time, but if learned properly, the changeup is an underrated weapon.
Mets’ pitcher Johan Santana is widely regarded as having the best changeup in baseball. The two-time Cy Young award winner is confident throwing the pitch in any count, against any hitter. Santana’s change has been described as something Bugs Bunny would throw. When he releases it, hitters think a 95 MPH heater is coming, but halfway to the plate the pitch appears to make a gravity defying mid-air arrest, leaving hitters at its mercy.
Johan throws his changeup
Interestingly, Santana didn’t truly learn to throw his changeup until he was in AAA with the Twins. After moving Santana from reliever to starter, Minnesota asked the young lefty to add a changeup to his repertoire. Santana took the Twins’ request to heart. When he wasn’t throwing, Johan constantly practiced his changeup grip, and during games, he threw the pitch repeatedly. It worked. Just two years after committing to the changeup, Santana won his first Cy Young.
I mention Santana because top Rockies’ prospect, Tyler Matzek, has much in common with the New York lefty. Like Johan, Matzek is a smooth tossing southpaw with a mid-nineties fastball and excellent control. Also like Santana, Matzek, at the organization’s behest, has made mastering the changeup a priority during his time in the minors.
Colorado selected Tyler Matzek with the 11th pick of the 2009 draft and gave him a franchise record signing bonus of $3.9M. Unfortunately, it took all summer for the two sides to come to this agreement, delaying Tyler’s debut until the 2010 season.
Matzek was close to unhittable at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Veijo, California. His senior year, he allowed just twelve runs in eighty-six innings. He struck out 106 hitters and threw six complete games. He only allowed one homerun for the year, an impressive feat for a guy that throws as hard as Matzek. During the playoffs, he led his team to the division title by throwing 18 1/3 scoreless innings in their final two games. He also drove in the only run of the championship game with a solo homerun to right.
When not pitching for Capistrano Valley, Tyler played first-base. His senior year, he hit over .400 with eight homeruns. After high school, Tyler considered honoring a commitment to play baseball at the University of Oregon. The Ducks were an appealing option for Tyler because they promised to let him pitch and hit. His desire to play in college seemed legit and he used it as leverage in negotiations with the Rockies. Ultimately though, $3.9M was too hard to turn down and he signed to play professional baseball.
Matzek has a very effective curveball which is nice compliment to his fastball. He can throw it accurately and it’s an effective strikeout pitch. So when the Rockies instructed him to shelf his curve prior to the 2010 season, Matzek had to be skeptical. To his credit, he complied. The Rox thought a good changeup would make Tyler a front line starter in the big leagues and wanted him to learn the pitch by forcing him to throw it in difficult situations — just like the Twins did with Santana.
For the entire 2010 season, Tyler focused on throwing his fastball and changeup almost exclusively. The results were encouraging. On the year, he made eighteen starts, going 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA in 89.1 innings. He only gave up 62 hits and accumulated 88 strikeouts. Understandably, Matzek’s walk rate was high because he had difficulty controlling his new pitch — particularly in the early part of the season. But, as the year progressed, Tyler progressed. His comfort and control grew with each start and he gained confidence in his change. By the end of the year, it was an above average pitch and will only get better.
Tyler will likely start next season in High A Modesto, and if he progresses like he did in Asheville, he could see time in AA Tulsa. Next year, he will still focus heavily on his changeup, but will also get back to throwing his curve again. By the time he becomes a big leaguer, he should have three above average pitches in repertoire. That is a dangerous combination for a lefty with good control.
The sky is the limit for the twenty-year-old Matzek. Many regarded him as the Rockies’ number one overall prospect before he set out to master the change. If he can continue to develop the pitch like the Rockies hope he can, his potential is off the charts. Pitching talent is thin in the upper levels of the Rockies’ system, meaning Tyler has a chance to ascend rapidly through the minors. One thing is certain; everyone in the organization will be keeping a close eye on their most highly touted prospect.