Early reports out of Viera are saying that Jordan Zimmermann is yet again working on perfecting his changeup to use as a fourth pitch. This is at least the second year in a row where Jordan Zimmermann was said to be working on a changeup, and this season it sounds like he’s finally got it.
The importance of a fourth pitch is understated for a starting pitcher. On average batters hit for a higher OPS each subsequent time they face a starting pitcher. For Zimmermann in 2012, batters hit .780 OPS the third time facing him, versus just .648 the first time. While relievers, who usually only face a batter once, can get away with only two or three pitches, this is not true for a starter. The more pitches a pitcher has, the more permutations of attack he has for any single hitter, which can help him pitch quality innings late into the game.
For Zimmermann, who is already proficient with his four-seam fastball, slider, and curveball, this pitch is the changeup. He has been working on this pitch over his entire career, and has a very low usage rate for it, throwing a changeup only 2.9% of the time. While there has been talk of him learning another pitch like a splitter, the Nationals have ruled this out due to the stress it would place on his elbow.
The changeup is often the first off-speed pitch taught to youth pitchers as it uses the same arm action as a fastball does. The difference in speed and movement comes from the grip used. While there are many variations on the changeup grip, the classic grip is what is referred to as the circle change. This grip consists of the middle and ring finger on top of the ball near where the seams meet, with the pinky on one side of the ball, and the index finger and thumb on the other side forming a circle. Hence the name circle change.
When thrown correctly the circle change will come out looking like it will be a four-seam fastball, however it is significantly slower and has more movement. A good changeup will have a slight sink to it, compared to the fastball, and some lateral movement, breaking in on right handers. The lateral movement is what separates it from a slider or curveball, which typically break away from a right hander.
One of the main struggles pitchers have in throwing the changeup is the natural inclination to try to throw the ball slower. This leads to a slower arm motion, and the arm being dragged through the motion, rather than thrown properly. This leads to two issues, first, that the batter can see the slower motion and is tipped off to a changeup coming, and second, that the slower motion leads to a breakdown in mechanics and a flat pitch that is difficult to control. Throwing a changeup incorrectly thus can lead to disastrous consequences.
From this article from spring 2012, it sounds like this was the problem Zimmermann was having. It says that Zimmermann “dragged his arm across his body rather than extending it toward the plate.” And the heat map of the changeups he threw in 2012 back this up. First, he only threw a changeup to left handers, meaning he didn’t trust it to break enough to be effective versus right handers. Second, the pitch is all over the map, he had no real control over the pitch, which as stated above is a symptom of dragging the arm. This isn’t an easy thing to fix, as it is a mental, rather than physical issue that pitchers have to overcome.
If Zimmermann has finally overcome this issue, and the rave reviews from Viera indicate that this might be the case, then he will be a much more effective pitcher next season. Zimmermann struggled last season to pitch late into the game, pitching into the 7th inning only 14 times. With an addition of a changeup pitching later into the game should be easier. Additionally, Zimmermann often states that his goal is groundouts and quick counts. The ability of the changeup to get a hitter unbalanced combined with its movement often leads to groundouts. With the addition of a changeup Nationals fans could see an even better Zimmermann in 2013.