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Vance Worley and developing pitches

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ID:	3715You would think with a moniker like “Vanimal” that Vance Worley would be a rock star-party hard individual. Some meathead with torn off sleeves and who breaks “No Pepper” signs on the backstop with a 99-mile per hour fastball.

That’s simply not Vance.

He is not a huck-n-chuck hurler who puts little thought in the process and just pitches on animal instincts. He realizes that his stuff isn’t electric. He knows that his fastball doesn’t wow radar gun enthusiasts or that his breaking ball doesn’t cause hitters to spin themselves in to the dirt. He does know what he has and how to use it. After all, you don’t get as may strikeouts as Worley did in 2011 and having most of them registered as caught looking without outsmarting and outthinking your opponent.

When asked if he would ever use Pitchf/x to help create an advantage over his opponents, he shrugged.

“There’s nothing to really use a whole lot,” he admits. “I tend to use it more against guys I have already faced, so I can see what they have done against me. It’s tough to go off of what other guys do because it everybody is different. There might be a guy who’s throwing upper-90s, such as Verlander, and he’s getting guys out by blowing them up and throwing hammer curveballs. For me, it’s like, OK, I don’t have that so I’m going to move it a little bit more and go the other way with it. Stuff that goes both directions. Every pitcher has success differently.”

Still, at just 25-years-old, there is always room for improvement. For example, Worley has had troubles establishing a threatening change-up, which has been a work-in-progress for the past two spring trainings.

“In spring last year with Philly, it was a matter of just getting a feel for the change-up, for consistency,” Worley said. “And today [Opening Day], I didn’t throw any because [the Phillies] were trying to get me to work on a split-finger change. I didn’t use it at all last year, so we just went with my strengths. Once I went down with the elbow injury, there were no strengths at all. I thought, why not?”

You may be wondering how is it that a pitcher develops all through the minor leagues and comes away without a serviceable change-up in his arsenal. After all, it’s like a fastball only less so, right? Shouldn’t a pitcher just ease up on the gas and – voila! – change-up!

The same question was recently posited to two Rockies pitchers who said that, in the minors, pitchers tend to fall back on what they are comfortable with or what they have had the highest level of success with. Far too often, that’s fastballs and breaking balls – repertoires conceived in high school and college to avoid aluminum bats, rather than induce soft contact. What’s more, if a pitcher is trying to develop a change during minor league games, a few bad results often sends the pitcher scrambling back to comfort zone to avoid his raw numbers from being dinged too much.

Change-ups definitely take the right placement and require the necessary feel to put them where a pitcher wants. With command of the circle-change residing in the hand’s last three digits and the split-change’s control found in the unbalanced positioning between a spread index and middle finger, mastering a change-up is not as easy as simply throwing softer. Worley had attempted both versions.Click image for larger version. 

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“It’s a feel pitch. Everybody’s different. There’re guys that can throw sinkers and there are guys that can’t. For me, I’m a guy who can throw a sinker and you try to teach it to people and some people can get it and some people can’t.”

Some change-ups come naturally, but not without some work. Worley’s teammate Jared Burton fooled around with a change-up grip while with Western Carolina University and perfected it to the point where his “splange-up”, so named by the diving split-finger action of the pitch, became a dominating out-pitch for him. In 2012, opponents hit just .156 off of it and rang up 31 of his 55 strikeouts with the pitch, helping him earn his two-year extension.

In the Hardball Times 2010 Baseball Annual, baseball researcher Dave Allen took a look at Pitchf/x data and examined where different pitches had success. His findings showed that a majority of pitchers kept their change-ups reserved for opposite-handed batters (i.e. a left-handed pitcher to a right-handed hitter) and only occasionally showing them to same-sided batters. Furthermore, change-ups that were thrown either down in the zone or away had the highest rate of success.

When asked if he would deploy his change-up much in the similar manner as the rest of the league, Worley disagreed.

“You can throw it to lefties or righties,” Worley said before launching into a detailed explanation. “It really depends more on pitch sequence. For righties, if you know you have a good one with good tumble to it and sink, that’s a good one to throw inside to a right-hander. Right-on-right. Lefties, same thing. Start over there or you can throw it at ‘em – kind of front-hip them. You know, Fernando Rodney does that really well with his changeup. It’s just a matter of how much your ball moves. If you throw a straight one, live on the corners with it but just know if it is too firm or they are sitting on it, it’s probably going to get hit.”

You may know Fernando Rodney for his tilted brim but his change-up has been devastating and deserves your attention. While Trevor Hoffman may be remembered as having one of the greatest change-ups of all-time, Rodney’s version is possibly one of the best in the game today.

In 2012, Rodney threw his changeup 396 times, according to Fangraphs.com’s Pitchf/x data base. Hitters tied themselves up in knots swinging at a pitch that carried an average of 13 miles per hour of difference from his fastball – nearly twice the differential as an average pitcher. Rodney has also perfected the arm action which mimics his fastball’s motion to the tee, causing hitters mass confusion and little time to deliberate on which pitch is coming off the mound. Opponents chased it out of the zone 44% of the time and missed on it completely on over a quarter of their swings.

Worley knows his limits. He knows he doesn’t have Verlanderian stuff. He knows he needs to go in-out, up-down, fast-slow in order to keep hitters off of his pitches. Even a new change-up would not turn him into a strikeout pitcher but rather give him one more tool to use to keep opponents at bay.
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