Viola preaching 'change' of tune at Mets camp
1988 AL Cy Young winner a perfect example that less can be more on mound
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The change of pace became a pitch of choice in the Mets' training camp in 2009, for no reason other than the presence of Johan Santana, the patron saint of pulling the string. His changeup was devastating, on par with Nolie's heater, Gooden's Lord Charles and Carlton's slider. Few pitchers ever threw a change so effectively as Santana. Few killed them so softly so well.
Six years later, the pitch Santana identified as "the best weapon I have," is back in the Mets' camp -- not that it ever disappeared altogether -- because of the presence of another former Twins American League Cy Young Award winner -- one Frank Viola.
Twenty-seven years since his sweet music brought a World Series championship to the Twin Cities and 26 since he was a near-unanimous choice for the AL Cy Young Award, Viola and his pull-the-string expertise are in the Mets' camp, persuading wannabes that less can be more when delivered properly at the opportune moment.
Dillon Gee, who teammates say has the most effective changeup among the team's projected starters, doesn't need to be persuaded. He estimates he throws his 25 to 30 percent of the time.
"Maybe I'd throw it less if I could hit 95 on the gun," Gee said. "But I like the pitch. It's an important part of what I do."
Gee developed the change without direction from Viola, as did bullpen candidate Gonzalez Germen -- whose changeup is considered second best in the clubhouse -- prospect Rafael Montero, potential long man John Lannan and others. But now, with Viola serving as the pitching coach for the Mets' Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, the pitch is bound to gain more traction among Mets hopefuls, in particular Noah Syndergaard, the shining star of the club's Minor League system.
Manager Terry Collins already considers Syndergaard's change a potential plus pitch, though he hasn't seen that much of it. Pitching coach Dan Warthen doesn't dispute that assessment. And Viola is delighted with what he has seen from Syndergaard.
"When he throws it properly," Viola said, "it's a weapon. When he gets more used to throwing it, it will be a plus pitch."
But how many plus pitches can one man have?
"Ask Pedro [Martinez]," said a National League scout Friday when responding to that rhetorical question.
Syndergaard's fastball, curve and slider already have reached the plus level, the Mets say. And so they whisper about his potential. If and when Syndergaard conquers the pitch that made Viola viable and Santana sensational, "it could be unfair," Warthen said.
Santana's teammates are among those who identify his change as the best ever. Viola says he's jealous of Santana. Besides Viola, Santana and Martinez, there were Greg Maddux, Andy Messersmith and, of course, Stu Miller. He had three changeups, NL hitters claimed in the '60s -- slow, slower and slowest. And there was the Bugs Bunny change that resulted in multiple swings at the same pitch.
Viola, once a kid from Long Island, learned the pitch from a man who helped make Brooklyn famous -- Johnny Podres, the late pitching coach of the Twins. Podres shut out the Yankess in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series -- the Dodgers' lone World Series championship in Brooklyn. The changeup melted the Yankees' bats.
"When Podres got let go by the Twins," Viola said Friday, "he came to me and said, 'Never give up on that pitch. It'll make a difference for you one day.' And it made all the difference."
By 1987, the difference was quite evident. Viola had been winning in double figures for three seasons, but his ERAs hardly were special. In 1986, he produced a 16-13 record in 37 starts despite a 4.51 ERA. The following year, after he had matsered the pitch, Viola's ERA dropped to 2.90. He had a 17-10 record in 36 starts. Viola had a 2-1 record in the World Series, allowing three runs in 16 innings in the two victories.
Viola won the AL Cy Young Award in 1988 after producing a 24-7 record and a 2.64 ERA. The changeup was the difference.
"It must have been a good one," Viola said, "because they knew what was coming and I still could win."
Viola was tipping his changeup by moving his right index finger outside his glove before his delivery. After he had been traded to the Mets in 1989, Todd Stottlemyre, the son of Mets pitching coach Mel, informed his father.
"He was pitching for the Blue Jays," Viola recalled. "And once I was out of the American League, he told his dad. But I was winning a lot when hitters knew what was coming."
Former Mets pitcher Bobby Ojeda, who coached in the system in 2001-03, also threw the changeup effectively. Someone once called him the "No Smoking" section of the rotation that included Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, David Cone and Sid Fernandez. Ojeda also learned his changeup from Podres when he was in the Red Sox's system. He calls him "The Pod" and speaks of him as if he were a god.
"When The Pod was coaching, there was nothing absolute about how to throw it," Ojeda said. "That's how The Pod taught it. Just find a way that feels right and keep throwing it. You've got to have something to get [hitters] off your fastball. It doesn't matter what you do if it works."
Indeed, when Darling wanted to add a change to his repertoire, he tried all the techniques, and when none worked well and he too was tipping his change, he made one subtle alteration in his delivery -- he didn't push off the rubber.
Podres delivered his change as if he were pulling down on a window shade. Others threw their changes as if they were placing the ball in the catcher's mitt. It didn't matter to him.
Viola said when was introduced to the pitch, Podres endorsed the circle change, thrown with the thumb and the pad of the index finger touching and the two fingers forming a circle. The other three were off the ball.
"He had me try a dozen different grips," Viola said. "I finally went back to the circle."
Syndergaard, who pushes the ball back into his large hand, is said to "choke" it. Montero uses the circle change. Each can expect passionate tutoring from Viola. Syndergaard is eager to learn and polish what he already has developed. He estimates he uses his change on 20 percent of his pitches. "I hope so," Viola said.
"I just wish more guys would understand how important a change is, " Viola said. "I'd like to see guys buy into it and learn how effective it is and how it can make your other pitches more effective. Hey, it's not a pretty pitch, especially when everyone's looking for 97, 98 [mph]. But it's an easier way to get through the 3, 4 and 5 hitters.
"They don't like it. I remember I got Willie Wilson on a good one one day. He walked back to the dugout questioning my manhood. 'Throw a fastball, you sissy. Be a man.'"
Said Viola: "Why?"