I did not travel with the team to Jupiter to watch today’s game. Instead, I stayed back at Tradition Field to watch the rest of the team work out.
The locker room was quiet; a tired Carlos Beltran sat at his locker; Duaner Sanchez and a few other relief pitchers were whispering in a group; and the room was mostly quiet, except for Pedro Martinez, who was talking with a coach about his love for ice cream.
Also, sitting quietly at his locker, very unassuming, just messing with his cell phone, was Johan Santana. It's his first camp, and he sort of looked like a kid without a spot at the lunch table. I had a baseball my hand, so I introduced myself and asked him how he holds his legendary circle change-up, which is a pitch I used to try and throw when I played baseball in high school. He told me to sit on the stool next to him. He spent the next 10 minutes positioning my fingers on the ball and breaking the pitch down movement by movement.
Duaner eventually left the room, Beltran followed, as did Pedro. However, Johan stayed and continued to talk with me about the circle change. He didn’t have to do it, either. This wasn't arranged. He could have easily just gotten up and gone home, which was clearly his next step in the day. But, he didn’t. Instead, he sat there and walked me through the whole process.
Basically, you make an okay sign with your hands and grip the ball with your middle finger, ring finger and pinky, leaving your thumb and pointer just off to the side. The ball is essentially thrown like a fastball. However, because of the deep, yet delicate, grip, the ball puffs out of the hand at a lesser speed. The key, he explained, is to hold it just like the four-seam fastball, which I was not doing at the start of our demonstration. According to Santana, most pitchers just focus on the grip and are not concerned with the seams, which is apparently what I had been doing in high school. In fact, some prefer to not be touching any seams. In his case, most all of his fingers are on a seam some place. He made me try to pull the ball from his hand while he was holding it, to demonstrate how strong of a grip he can get. The baseball wasn't going any place. The way he does it, the seams rotate in the same direction as his fastball, deceiving the batters even more, because, as he put, “These hitters are not stupid.” The funny thing is, I think that grip is fairly standard; it’s just that he is so disciplined in his delivery that, when coupled with the consistent rotation, it’s almost impossible for a batter to pick up.
“This is why I focus so much on my release point, because that’s what makes my change-up better,” he explained to me. “I want to make sure all of my pitches look the same, and so I get the same release point and same arm speed every pitch. And that takes time. That’s what I work on. Not just the grip, but everything from head to toe so that everything can look the same. We worked on all of that until we got it right. That’s how I approach my games, my batting practices, my bullpen sessions. I am very serious when I throw my bullpen. I’m not just throwing. I want to make sure that everything is in place, from location to mechanics to delivery to release point. Everything. It’s not just the grip. There are a lot of things involved in throwing a change-up.”
I also assumed that he pulled his hand inward after releasing the ball, to give it a diving action. He said, "No, I just throw it like a fastball."
In fact, he said the reason he likes the pitch so much is because it does not involve any twisting of his elbow, "and it keeps it loose.”
Done, I shook Johan’s hand and said, ‘Thank you for the lesson." I asked if he wanted the ball back. He said, "Keep it." So I did. It has no autograph on it. It looks like any other ball. However, I'll always be able to point to it and say, “This is the ball Johan Santana used to teach me his circle change-up,” and that is something I will never forget.