Thursday night on MLB Network, former pitcher Pedro Martinez demonstrated how during his playing days he would compound the deception of his pristine throwing mechanics by switching grips from a fastball to a changeup—one of the most devastating circle-changeups in the history of baseball—in the middle of his delivery. Some sucker standing on second base, hoping to tip off his overmatched teammate in the batter’s box, would spot the fastball grip when Martinez came set, but then Pedro would slide over an extra finger and tuck the ball deeper into his hand while cocking it back. You can hear it in the voices of Pedro’s co-hosts, but just to be clear: That is fucking outrageous.
This was almost certainly less impressive as a competitive edge than as a pure feat of sleight-of-hand wizardry, unless pitch-tipping was a much bigger feature of turn-of-the-millennium baseball than anyone remembers. Martinez’s fastball during his extraordinary prime sat in the mid-90s, which for hitters of that era, well before the recent spike in league-wide velocities, was overpowering all on its own. Pitch-tipping is only worth so much when the opposing pitcher has pinpoint control and exploding velocity. It’s a testament to both his outrageous dexterity and his competitive stubbornness that Martinez went to such lengths to disguise his changeup, risking a sloppy transition and a poor grip in order to keep even a baserunner from knowing what was coming.
This morning I spent almost an hour watching highlights of Martinez uncorking that evil changeup, which he could throw either with cruel arm-side movement or with more of a vertical break, depending on the exact placement of his middle finger. The former was the nastier of the two. For any other pitcher it would’ve been their best secondary pitch, their best out pitch, and the only off-speed pitch they would ever, ever need to throw. Martinez went ahead and incorporated a useful variation on his deadly changeup, largely for the same reason he used subterfuge to hide his grip from a bozo on second base: because he was unwilling to give an inch, and because when they’re all available to you, it’s more fun to use every possible trick. When you can do it, why wouldn’t you do it?
The Athletic published a cool blog earlier this week about White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito, thrower of what might be this generation’s best changeup, and how he’s recently incorporated a relatively un-spinny and unsexy slider and turned it into maybe his best out pitch. The dynamic at play is a concept called tunneling: When a pitcher throws a pitch type along the same trajectory as a different pitch type, so that they look like the same pitch for as long as possible, it accentuates the second pitch’s distinct break. Giolito has mastered the art of throwing his changeup high in the zone, where it looks like a high heater—one of the modern era’s real go-to out pitches—long enough to confound a hitter’s timing. This rinky-dink slider, thrown in the same tunnel, might look to the batter like a high fastball, but it also might look to the batter like the high changeup, until it darts to the pitcher’s glove side and misses the barrel of the bat. Tunneling and deception turn a pitch with ho-hum spin into a confounding, bat-missing weapon.
That’s impressive stuff, but compared to Martinez’s arsenal of wipeout pitches it’s so utilitarian as to be almost adorable. When a guy has a couple of fastball grips, a wicked curve, and history’s greatest changeup; when he incorporates a variation on history’s greatest changeup purely for variety’s sake; when he can locate all those pitches wherever he wants in any count or scenario; and when he’s taught himself to re-grip the baseball mid-delivery in order to fuck up even an attentive baserunner, that’s an almost ostentatious level of mastery. We are talking about one extremely cool guy, and that’s before even getting to the part where Martinez was 5-foot-11 and scrawny, and it’s not clear a modern organization would even allow a young pitcher with his build to keep his violent mechanics and throw a mid-90s fastball without relegating him to the bullpen. I was old enough during Martinez’s prime to think of him as the coolest motherfucker on Earth, but the ways we talk about baseball and the tools available for broadcasting it with pristine clarity on television are much more advanced nowadays. My personal baseball memory and point of reference is refined and deeper, so now when I think about Pedro, all I can do is slump and moan about how much it sucks that there will never be another one like him during my lifetime.