King Felix — and his masterful changeup — gets the royal treatment

In the hands of Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, the old-fashioned changeup is elevated to perfection.

SLOW BALLS

Editor’s note

Terry McDermott’s new book, “Off Speed,” explores pitching, Felix Hernandez’s 2012 perfect game and life — one pitch, and one inning (or chapter) at a time. In our edited version of Chapter 9, McDermott dissects Felix’s favorite pitch, the changeup; the final inning of his perfect game (“one of the greatest exhibitions of off-speed pitches ever put on,” McDermott says); and the author’s connection to Iowa, and his continuing search for home.

When professional baseball began, pitchers were restricted in what they could do. They couldn’t throw hard. They couldn’t throw crooked. They couldn’t be sneaky. They were allowed to do one thing — throw the ball straight and, above all, slow, so the hitters could do what the fans paid to see them do — hit. Of course, pitchers immediately began finding ways to do all of the things that had been forbidden.

There is, then, irony in the fact that the dominant pitch of the last two decades is the only pitch the old-timers were allowed to throw — the slow ball. It has gone by many names since, and nobody calls it a “slow ball” anymore. We seem to finally have standardized the name as “the changeup.”

From the book:

“Off Speed” by Terry McDermott

Copyright © 2017 by Terry McDermott.

Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday

Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

The message that a fastball sends is among the most primal things in sport: Here, buddy; see if you can hit this. Little men with big arms make bigger men weep when they throw the fastball by them. The point of the changeup is nearly the opposite; it’s an invitation, not a challenge: Here; have some.

A normal changeup is indeed a change of pace from the quicker selections in a pitcher’s arsenal, sometimes 10 or 15 mph slower than a pitcher’s fastest pitch. It is thrown with a variety of grips but, whatever the grip, the one thing a successful changeup must do is persuade the hitter it is something other than what it is. This is accomplished mainly by making an arm motion and release as nearly identical to a fastball motion as is possible.

Hitters, like all humans, anticipate the future; most particularly, they anticipate the pitch that is coming. The human brain, with enough practice,…

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