MILWAUKEE - When Roy Halladay first arrived at Phillies spring training, those around him in the clubhouse marveled at his work ethic. What time did he get here? 5:30 a.m.? Seriously?
Halladay was busy. He followed the same demanding workout routine he had for years with Toronto - except many were noticing only now because he was on a winner, a big-market team with plenty of attention surrounding it.
This was lost in the commotion: Quietly one day, Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee introduced Halladay to a split-finger grip for his change-up.
In recent years with Toronto, Halladay was known for devoting a majority of his time in spring training to tinkering with his change-up, trying to find something he could use with confidence in the regular season. It's the one pitch that had constantly eluded Halladay.
When Halladay faced the Blue Jays for the first time this spring as a Phillie, a group of Toronto reporters stuck around at Halladay's locker at Bright House Field to chat.
One of them asked Halladay if he was still fooling around with that darned change-up. It had seemed so silly in the past - one of the best pitchers in the game working so hard on a pitch he rarely used when the games counted.
"It's the eternal search," one reporter joked.
"Yeah," Halladay said with a smile.
And that search is what makes Halladay so good, if it already wasn't clear enough. The best pitchers are always looking for a way to adjust. Adjust before the hitters can.
Through eight starts with the Phillies, the split-fingered change-up is Halladay's newest way of leaping ahead of the curve.
"It's been outstanding," Halladay said last week. "It took a while to get in spring training and it's still coming. There are days when it's better than others. But it's been far more effective than anything else I've done to this point."
In 2009, Halladay threw his change-up 4.6 percent of the time, according to pitch data from Baseball Info Solutions.
In 2010, Halladay has used the change-up for 13.1 percent of his total pitches. If he keeps throwing it at that rate, it would be by far the most Halladay has used the pitch over his entire nine-year career. (His previous high was 6.0 percent change-ups in 2007.)
Halladay's 1.59 ERA this season is the lowest of his career through eight starts.
Of course, the new change-up isn't responsible for all of Halladay's success as a Phillie, but it has certainly helped. Halladay now has four pitches he is comfortable using in any situation.
Take Halladay's complete-game shutout of the Mets on May 1 for example: Of Halladay's 118 pitches, 20 were change-ups. Eighteen of those change-ups were for strikes and an astounding eight of those strikes were swinging.
"That's a new toy he has," Mets second baseman Alex Cora, who went 0 for 4 that day, told reporters. "I've faced him a lot, and that's a new one. I was joking around, if he gets a new toy, that's not fair."
Even Dubee said he was surprised at the instant comfort level Halladay (6-1, 1.59 ERA) has developed with the new grip.
"He's throwing it a lot more in some games than I thought he would," Dubee said. "But he has good vision out there when hitters are attacking hard stuff. And he's got real good commitment to whatever he's throwing. So he's very comfortable with it."
Halladay has tried various change-up grips in his career without finding one that worked consistently. Dubee suggested the split-finger grip because of the success Kyle Kendrick had with it.
Needing to develop secondary pitches to go along with his trademark sinker, Kendrick had tried a circle change-up - a two-seam grip where the index finger is rolled into a circle until it touches the thumb - but never felt comfortable with it. Halladay had also tried a circle change before.
When he went to triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2009, Kendrick learned the split-finger grip from another sinkerballer, Justin Lehr. Lehr had learned the grip from Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson and passed it along to Kendrick.
The movement on a split-finger change-up is similar to that of the sinker - it's just slower. A conversation with Halladay early in spring training gave Dubee the idea of passing Kendrick's idea along.
"When I was talking to Roy, he said, 'I've never had a change-up that I've felt comfortable with,' " Dubee said. "So I said, this is what we're doing with Kyle, being a sinker-ball guy, take the two-seam grip and spread your fingers."
"Roy's thrown a lot of good ones," Kendrick said. "And he throws it to righties."
Major League Baseball's Pitch f/x data shows Halladay has thrown his change-up for a strike 60 percent of the time in 2010. And 41.3 percent of those strikes have been swings-and-misses.
The eternal search appears to have reached a solution.
"I used it at times," Halladay said of his past change-up. "It was more like I really had to pick my spots. I couldn't use it in big situations. So I feel like it's something else I can go to now."
And it all began with one innocent conversation in spring training.
"It's something he took to real quickly," Dubee said. "Shoot, after three or four days playing catch with it, he said, 'I think I can do this.' "
The rest of the National League would agree.
Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
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