Standout WPIAL pitchers learn importance of changing speed
Blackhawk's Brendan McKay broke onto the WPIAL baseball scene three seasons ago with a curveball that baffled and two fastball variations that zoomed past all but the best batters.
Now a Louisville-bound senior, McKay plans to cement an eye-popping statistical legacy with a pitching arsenal that includes a fourth option, one the lefty admits deserves a fair share of credit for his sustained success on the mound.
“Before I had the changeup, I was a great pitcher,” McKay said. “But after that, I became so much better because I had that other option that guys haven't seen as much.”
From pitchers as polished as McKay — the owner of 256 career strikeouts and a 22-1 record at Blackhawk — to fledgling freshmen, the importance of pitch selection is difficult to overstate. A wide variety of options exist — there are fastballs, changeups, curveballs, sliders, slurves, cutters, sinkers, screwballs, forkballs, knuckleballs, gyroballs. And thanks in large part to the internet, instructions —some less reliable than others — are available for those who want to learn any of the throwing techniques.
Though it has less of a “wow” factor than its breaking-ball counterparts, the changeup is the complement to the fastball that those in the WPIAL baseball community consider most desirable these days.
McKay added a circle changeup to his arsenal as a sophomore at the encouragement of Blackhawk pitching coach Joe Boyer. He continued to lean on his big curve and booming four-seam fastball, but he realized his changeup made batters guess more than ever.
“I just didn't need it” in youth baseball and early in his high school career, McKay said. “I could get kids out with a fastball and curveball. But now kids have caught on after seeing me for three, four years. But this third pitch can deceive them if they're waiting for my fastball.”
Convincing pitchers to stump batters with speed reduction is sometimes a tricky task for coaches.
“As a pitcher, you don't see the movement on a changeup that you see on a breaking ball,” said 10th-year Plum coach Carl Vollmer, who pitched at Pitt. “When you see movement on a pitch, it's intoxicating. (The changeup) doesn't have that buckling effect, and you're not getting the “oohs” and “aahs” from the other team.”
Riverview coach Rich Griser, who has served as an associate scout for the Tampa Bay Rays since 1996, believes most pitchers start working on a changeup too late in their careers to realize and appreciate the subtle movements of the off-speed offering.
“If (coaches and parents) pounded the changeup earlier with kids they like do with the so-called ‘glamour pitches,' ” Griser said, “I think these kids would really throw some nice changeups with a lot of action when they get older.”
West Mifflin senior A.J. Olasz, a Cincinnati recruit, piled up 64 strikeouts with a five-pitch selection that included a cutter/slider hybrid he added just before the 2013 high school season. He considers his downward-diving curveball a pitch that will serve him well in college, but he worries the Bearcats won't grant him much mound time if he doesn't refine his circle changeup prior to his arrival on campus.
“It's pretty average, and to pitch in college, you have to have a great changeup,” said Olasz, who started throwing the pitch as a sophomore. “It's definitely the pitch you need to have at college, and you need to be able to take at least 10 miles per hour off it (compared to a fastball).”
Blessed with particularly long fingers and large hands, Greensburg Salem senior Pat Boyer has embraced the splitter in addition to a circle changeup as a fastball complement that stresses the arm less than breaking pitches such as curves and sliders. Boyer lodges the ball between his index and middle fingers and throws the ball using the same motion as a fastball.
“It's a hard pitch for a lot of guys because of the grip,” said Boyer, who struck out 69 batters during the 2013 regular season. “But it works for me.”
Any pitch can earn a player his big break — as long as it consistently finds the strike zone. That's the message former major leaguer Matt Clement, now Butler's boys basketball coach and a volunteer assistant with the baseball program, emphasizes to those he helps.
Clement, who rarely pitched in high school but ultimately spent nine seasons in the majors and earned an All-Star Game nod with the Boston Red Sox in 2005, credited his ascension to the pros to his slider. One of his advisors early in his career wanted him to give up the pitch in order to focus on a curveball. But as he reviewed his pro days and pondered how heavily he leaned on breaking pitches, he wondered if a better changeup might have led to a longer tenure.
“That's a pitch I never was able to master,” he said. “I think if I'd done that at a young age, it would've made me such a better pitcher in the long run.
“I'm a firm believer that those (breaking ball) pitches at a young age — because there's a lot of manipulation with hand position, wrist position — I believe that (manipulation) takes away from your velocity. I know when I came up with the Red Sox, I was in survival mode in the major leagues and had to reinvent myself constantly, and when I added the cutter, man it made me good for two or three years, but all of a sudden, I didn't have the same fastball anymore.”