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'What is that?' Abad's changeup baffles hitters

Red Sox reliever thriving with baseball's slowest pitch
MLB.com

It was a sweltering July night in Arlington and Red Sox pitcher Fernando Abad was eating innings. His team was leading the Rangers, 8-2, in the sixth, and everyone around him was dreaming of the air-conditioned clubhouse.

Adrian Beltre, Abad's former Dominican Republic teammate at this year's World Baseball Classic, stood with his bat gripped high and his closed stance hulking over the plate. Abad threw an 83-mph changeup for a called strike one, then loaded and fired again, whipping his left arm forward at the same speed as the pitch before.

It was a sweltering July night in Arlington and Red Sox pitcher Fernando Abad was eating innings. His team was leading the Rangers, 8-2, in the sixth, and everyone around him was dreaming of the air-conditioned clubhouse.

Adrian Beltre, Abad's former Dominican Republic teammate at this year's World Baseball Classic, stood with his bat gripped high and his closed stance hulking over the plate. Abad threw an 83-mph changeup for a called strike one, then loaded and fired again, whipping his left arm forward at the same speed as the pitch before.

What happened next instantly found its way to Twitter, YouTube and the desktops of GIF makers everywhere. The ball that came out of Abad's hand definitely wasn't a fastball, nor did it resemble the changeup he had previously thrown. It wasn't like anything one sees in a Major League game; it was more like the lazy toss a parent throws to a kid in the batting cage.

Beltre planted his front leg and waited -- and waited and waited -- for a pitch that seemed like it would never arrive. Like a feather swaying toward the ground, Abad's pitch fell out of the sky and into catcher Christian Vazquez's mitt, right over home plate for a called strike. Beltre's body mirrored the flight of the pitch; down, down, down until he landed on one knee.

Gif: Adrian Beltre reacts to wild eephus pitch from Fernando Abad

Beltre typically saves that finishing position for massive home runs. But on this night, he became one more very public victim of what Abad calls his "super changeup."

"I threw it to Beltre while we were practicing at the WBC," Abad said, as his face lit up when he thought back to that pitch in Arlington. "He laughed and he looked at me and said, 'What is that?' I just laughed. I don't say anything."

Beltre knew Abad had this eephus-like pitch in his arsenal, but he still looked wholly unprepared that night in July. He's not alone. With the level of advanced scouting in place today, opponents are aware of the pitch by now and what it can do. Abad has affectionately dubbed it his "super changeup," and he throws it with the same trajectory as his 75-85 mph "regular" changeup, as well as his low-90s fastball. But the "super changeup" positively crawls through the air, and it can make imposing sluggers look like beer-league softball players.

Take, for instance, the 63-mph flutter ball that froze Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for strike three on July 2:

Gif: Fernando Abad's 63-mph strikeout pitch

Or the moonball that left Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop grabbing a handful of air June 1:

Gif: Abad Eefus Pitch

Or Abad's most wicked offering of all, a 58.6-mph lob to Khris Davis to record the slowest strikeout in the Majors since at least 2015:

Gif: Abad Changeup

Abad remembers all of these pitches, nodding and smiling when they're brought up like a musician recalling his greatest hits. He brought up another one, a low-70s changeup that went high and tight to the Blue Jays' Ryan Goins and hit the knob of Goins' bat before ricocheting into play.

Gif: Goins Groundout

"I picked it up and threw it to first," Abad recalled. "[Goins] was on the ground and he looked at me and said, 'What was that, man?' I said, 'It's a changeup.'"

"What was that?" is the most common feedback Abad gets about his slo-mo weapon. It all started in Spring Training of last year when the southpaw was with the Twins. Abad, one of the more gregarious and loose members of any clubhouse he's in, was messing around in warmups one day when he decided to try something different.

"One day I went there and I told my throwing partner, 'Hey, I want to try this and you tell me how good it is,'" Abad recalled.

It was good enough to call over Twins pitching coach Neil Allen, who was impressed enough to give Abad the green light.

"He told me, 'That pitch is good, you can mix it in and throw it any time you want,'" said Abad.

The super changeup wasn't perfect to start. Employing it with both the Twins and later the Red Sox after a midseason trade last year, Abad would too often slow down his entire delivery before throwing it; an instant tipoff to opposing hitters. But this season, he's fine-tuned it to where his motion and delivery with the super change is indiscernible from his fastball. With as much as a 35-mph difference between Abad's heater and slowest changeup, this secret weapon can be devastating when he executes it well.

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Top: Fernando Abad's 92 mph fastballBottom: His *63 mph* "super-changeup"Result: Strike 3 w/o a swing.#RedSox pic.twitter.com/Vmr9f8zLLR

"They're ready for the fastball," said Abad, "and when they see that slow pitch they think, 'Oh, crap. What can I do now?' A lot of times, they'll just laugh."

The eephus has been thrown in many different forms over the years. It can end in triumph for a pitcher, such as Dave LaRoche's famous "La Lob", or in disaster like the time Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez failed to sneak one past Alex Rodriguez. Those who follow the Red Sox every day might be waiting for the big one.

Tweet from @PeteAbe: Abad struck out Navarez with that 68-mph changeup he likes. The day is coming somebody hits that 500 feet.

That day may come, but to this point, Abad has triumphed. On the season, opposing batters have gone 0-for-11 with six strikeouts against changeups Abad has thrown 70 mph or slower. It's as unpredictable for them as it is for Abad's own catchers.

"A lot of times, I'll put down the sign for changeup and then he'll just throw it," said Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. "I don't always know it's coming myself."

Abad has grown so confident with the pitch that he'll often wait for 2-2 and 3-2 counts to use it, especially once batters have gotten too many looks at his fastball. When it's time, Abad opens the index, middle and ring fingers on his left hand and holds the ball out away from his palm. Then he flips it toward home plate, almost like a knuckleball.

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Fernando Abad's sub-70 mph "super-changeups" this season. A bunch of floating UFOs that turn into outs. #RedSox pic.twitter.com/5S3QSq2rxb

"It's hard because I still want to throw it perfectly, I want to locate it in the zone," he said. "Then the hitter sees that if he doesn't swing, they could call a strike. They have to swing."

Swing or take. It's a decision opposing hitters are dreading, knowing they could be embarrassed either way. The Red Sox's pitching staff has a stable of current and former American League Cy Young Award candidates in Rick Porcello, David Price and Chris Sale, but all three of them have asked Abad how he throws baseball's slowest pitch.

"When we play catch, they try to throw it," Abad said with a chuckle, "but then they look at me and say, 'I can't throw that.'"

It's a pitch Abad can call his own, and a pitch that is driving hitters crazy.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Boston Red Sox, Fernando Abad