All these years later, Jamie Moyer can still recall the moment when it all sank in, when he realized what an effective weapon a change-up can be against a major-league hitter.
It was the summer of 1986. He was a 23-year-old rookie making his sixth big-league start against a New York Mets team that would go on to win 108 games and the World Series. Gary Carter, the Mets' leader in RBIs that season, was at the plate.
"Gary was in his prime," Moyer said of the Mets catcher, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003. "I had the utmost respect for him."
Some pitchers would have huffed and puffed and tried to blow Carter's house down - you know, fight power with power.
The change-up had brought him from the mound at St. Joseph's University to the big leagues in just two years. He would fight power with a powder-puff pitch.
He threw a first-pitch change-up for a strike. He threw his second pitch, another change-up, and Carter belted it 500 feet foul, into the upper deck at Shea Stadium. Pitch three was a change-up for a ball. Carter fouled off the fourth pitch, another change-up, before swinging and missing at the fifth, yet another change-up.
Moyer caught the ball from his catcher, briefly thought Wow, I just struck out Gary Carter, and got ready to face the next hitter. His concentration, though, was interrupted by an eruption in the Mets dugout. Carter was so frustrated after going down on strikes that he spiked his bat in the bat rack and began screaming over the rookie pitcher's reluctance to throw the fastball he'd been looking for.
It was at that moment that Moyer knew he had a special friend in the change-up. He's been killing at-bats softly ever since.
Two decades earlier, a young pitcher named Jim Palmer had his epiphany with the pitch. He was facing a hard-hitting Detroit Tigers team, and Dick McAuliffe, a dangerous lefthanded hitter, was at the plate. With a two-balls, no-strike count, Palmer knew McAuliffe would look for a fastball. Palmer floated a change-up and McAuliffe bounced it weakly back to the mound.
"That started a love affair with the change-up," said Palmer, who, despite being known more for his fastball and overhand curve, used the pitch effectively during his Hall of Fame career.
As a sporting society, we are obsessed with speed and power. We love big fastballs, hard slap shots, rafter-shaking dunks and bone-crushing hits.
That's what makes the change-up so intriguing. It is a gentle breeze in a game filled with tornadoes. The batter's swing can say 500-foot home run, but the result is a pop-up or a tapper back to the mound.
The strength of the Phillies team that will begin its 125th season today may be its starting pitching. Two members of the rotation, the 44-year-old Moyer and 23-year-old Cole Hamels, rely extensively on the change-up.
One major-league scout, who asked not to be named because he regularly covers the Phillies, rates the change-ups thrown by Moyer and Hamels as among the best in the game.
The scout pulled out his files.
On a 2-to-8 scouting scale, he gives Moyer's change-up a 7 with the comment: "Artistic change of speeds."
Hamels rates a 7-8 with the comments: "Strong deception. Strong fade. Good depth and dive. Premium pitch."
Though Hamels has two other quality pitches - fastball and curve - the change-up is what sets him apart. It is the difference-making pitch that allowed him to get to the majors after just 1951/3 innings in the minors. In his repertoire, it is the pitch most hitters are wary of, the one that can make them look like a tumbling Charlie Brown when Lucy pulls the football away.
"Guys get to the major leagues because they can hit a fastball," said Mets lefty Tom Glavine, owner of one of the best change-ups in the game. "The change-up neutralizes everything."
Glavine has 290 wins and should eclipse the vaunted 300 mark this season.
Where would his career be without the change-up?
"Over a long time ago," he said.
"I don't know if I would have had a career," he said.
"It's a beautiful pitch," the scout said. "It'll keep a lefty like Moyer around forever. It turned Keith Foulke into a closer throwing 87 or 88 [m.p.h.]."
Pitchers have been trying to outsmart hitters since the 1860s. Hall of Famer Warren Spahn is credited with best summing up the chess match with his famous observation that hitting is timing and pitching is upsetting timing.
That's the goal of the change-up. It is pitching's great impostor. Everything about it - from the speed of the pitcher's arm at delivery to the count in which it is usually thrown - says fastball.
Then Lucy pulls the ball away, and the hitter goes back to the dugout screaming.
"That's when I know I have a good one, when guys are yelling, 'Challenge someone' from the dugout," Glavine said. "I feel like saying, 'I am challenging you. It's my best pitch.' "
Hamels recalled a conversation he had with Houston slugger Lance Berkman last summer.
"I faced him several times," Hamels said. "He said he was looking change-up every time and still couldn't hit it."
Moyer and Hamels aren't the first Phillies to rely on the change-up. Hall of Famer Tim Keefe, who won the last of his 342 games with the 1893 Phillies, is considered the first to effectively use the pitch, which was then known as the "change of pace" or "slow ball."
Well-thrown, it has been driving hitters crazy and keeping them off balance for generations.
"Most guys in this league are dead-red fastball hitters, and when they know they're getting one they'll hit it out of the ballpark," said Atlanta's Chipper Jones. "To have a good change-up erases the hitter's ability to sit fastball. The pitcher doesn't even have to throw it for it to be effective because it'll be in the hitter's mind."
The change-up also has been driving pitchers crazy for generations because it's not for every pitcher. Some have been conditioned to do everything with maximum effort, and the change in mind-set is difficult to grasp.
"With a change-up, you're purposely trying to throw the ball slower," Glavine said. "It's not something we're wired to do."
Also, it's a tough pitch to learn. Sure, there are those like Moyer and Hamels, who picked it up easily. (Moyer learned in it in college, from former St. Joe's pitcher Kevin Quirk, who learned it as a minor-leaguer in the Yankees system. Hamels learned it in high school.) But many struggle for years with the pitch. Glavine had been in the majors four seasons before it finally clicked for him in spring training 1991. He doubled his wins from 10 to 20 that season.
Physically, the biggest challenge for a pitcher trying to throw a change-up is the grip. There are several ways to hold a change-up, and none is better than the other. Whether it's the three-finger grip, the Vulcan grip (split the middle and ring fingers), the palm ball, or the popular circle change-up, all that matters is the result - ideally bad contact or a swing and miss. Think of the pitch as barbecue sauce. Everyone has a different recipe, but what matters is whether it tastes good on ribs.
"The best pitch in baseball is the fastball," Palmer said. "A good change-up can make a great fastball better. It can make a good fastball great."
Hamels grew up in San Diego, where Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has one of the best change-ups in the game. Hamels would watch Hoffman close out a game throwing nothing but change-ups.
"I need that pitch," he'd say to himself.
One of the keys to throwing a change-up is setting the ball deep in the hand to eliminate the whipping action of the fingertips. Hoffman's grip resembles that of a palm ball. His thumb and pinkie are under the ball, leaving three fingers wrapped over the ball. He extends his hand toward the plate at delivery - old-timers call it "pulling down the window shade" - and the ball comes out of his hand with backspin, which causes it to drop. His arm moves as quickly as it does for a fastball, but the pitch is slower because it's coming off the mid-knuckles, not the fingertips.
Hamels and Moyer throw a circle, or OK, change-up. They get the ball off their power fingers (the index and middle fingers) by connecting their index finger and thumb in a circle outside the ball. The weakened grip causes a drop in velocity, and a slight inward turn of the wrist at release causes the ball to fade. Both are lefthanders, so they fade the ball away from a righthanded hitter. A good, fading change-up is often called a "dead fish." Glavine has one of the best.
Once the pitcher has a comfortable grip, he must have the confidence to let the pitch fly with the exact arm speed of a fastball. To slow the arm down is to tip off the pitch - and a tipped-off change-up will be hit hard.
"Think fastball; let the grip make it a change-up," said former Phillies pitcher Larry Andersen. "Hitters are focused on your arm, so you have to have fastball arm speed."
Johnny Podres, the 1955 World Series MVP, former Phillies pitching coach, and master change-up instructor, has been credited as the first to throw the circle change, but he says he didn't throw one. He connected his thumb, ring finger and pinkie under the ball and "pulled down the shade" upon release of his change-up.
"It all depends on how it best fits in your hand," he said. "The whole key is using the same arm motion as your fastball. It's a great pitch to have."
When Podres was on top of his game, his fastball hit the catcher's mitt at about 92 m.p.h. and his change-up at about 85. He lost his good change-up late in his career because he didn't maintain separation between the two pitches after an arm injury. A differential is essential in upsetting a hitter's timing. If a pitcher's fastball grip produces an 85-m.p.h. pitch and his change-up grip produces an 83-m.p.h. pitch, he won't be successful. An 8- to 12-m.p.h. separation is ideal.
Last season, the aforementioned scout had Hamels' fastball at 89 to 91 and his change-up at 81 to 82. Moyer's fastball was 80 to 84 and his change-up 72 to 75. Both pitches look the same coming out of each pitcher's hand. Moyer is so cognizant of separation that he asked the Phillies to use a radar gun on him this spring.
In the turbocharged sports world of the 21st century, the change-up remains the great irony - the slow, slower, slowest yin to the bigger, faster, stronger yang.
"I'm not sure people appreciate the pitch because it doesn't represent power," Moyer said. "Soft wouldn't work in the NHL or NFL."
But it works just fine in baseball, where a pitcher doesn't always have to huff and puff and blow the house down to take the air out of a hitter's swing.
Jim Salisbury singles out 22 of the great change-up artists, then and now. In alphabetical order, they are:
Grips and techniques can vary from pitcher to pitcher and teacher to teacher, and pitchers are constantly experimenting. With that in mind, here are baseball's basic pitches.
The classic power pitch, it is the easiest to locate.
Grip: The first two fingers are positioned across the wide seams, thumb underneath. The ball comes off the fingertips with a bottom-to-top spin, which creates a riding effect.
Result: The pitch is generally straight and is used when a pitcher wants to throw the ball by a hitter.
Master: Curt Schilling.
When someone has good movement on his fastball, this is the pitch he's throwing.
Grip: It's held with the first two fingers directly on or just inside the two narrow seams. This promotes movement - tailing or sinking - as the ball reaches home plate.
Result: A good sinking fastball will induce ground balls.
Master: Kevin Brown.
Hold it off-center, across the seams, exerting pressure on the middle finger.
Result: From a righthander, the pitch should break inward, or cut, on a lefthanded hitter, missing the sweet spot of the bat.
Master: Mariano Rivera.
Place the first two fingers on top of the narrow seams and spread them so seams become visible. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, who perfected the pitch, used to push the ball with his thumb on release.
Result: Properly thrown, it looks like a fastball, then dives or tumbles downward as it reaches the plate.
Master: Roger Clemens.
Pressure is exerted on a seam. The pitcher snaps or rotates his wrist sharply at release so the thumb goes from the bottom of the ball to the top.
Result: This creates the top-to-bottom spin that causes the pitch to break sharply downward.
Master: Tom Gordon.
Pressure is exerted on a seam. The pitcher makes a chopping motion with his wrist at release.
Result: A popular breaking pitch similar to the cut fastball, it is faster than a curveball, and the break is sharper than a cutter and more lateral than a curveball.
Master: Steve Carlton.
It can be held as a two- or four-seamer. The key is to weaken the grip without altering arm speed.
Result: The hitter sees fastball arm speed, but the weakened grip reduces velocity. The most popular way to weaken the grip is to hold the ball deep in the hand, with the OK sign outside the ball, but other grips (palm, three-finger, Vulcan) can be used. Thrown correctly, it upsets a hitter's timing and can dip or fade.
Master: Tom Glavine.
The ball is held with the first two fingertips or fingernails and anchored with the thumb underneath.
Result: This difficult-to-master pitch comes out of the hand lazily, with no spin, thus making it dance unpredictably.
Master: Phil Niekro.