Brett Cecil Trying to Rediscover Changeup

BY CHRIS TOMAN

TORONTO – Whether Brett Cecil can execute a plan he hopes will revitalize his career with the Blue Jays remains to be seen. But he does have one.

It’s no secret that Cecil, who turned to an offseason-throwing program designed to increase his velocity, is hoping some extra zip on his heater can help turn some heads in camp.

But Cecil, who is believed to be battling for the vacant long-man spot with hard-throwing righty Jeremy Jeffress, is also trying to rediscover his once-promising changeup, a pitch that was kicked to the curb once he transitioned from starter to short-stint reliever last year.

Cecil almost exclusively used a fastball-cutter-curveball combination, according to the data at Brooksbaseball.net, once he joined the bullpen but, after some conversations with the coaching staff, it was determined he should incorporate the changeup into his arsenal again.

"They want me to try to start throwing my changeup a little bit more now that I have a little bit of the velocity back," Cecil said after a recent Grapefruit League game.

"And I completely agree with them -- start trying to change speeds a little bit more."

Over his career, which has mostly been as a starter, the 26-year-old has thrown his changeup more than any pitch besides his four-seam fastball -- a pitch that was sitting 90-92 mph the three times I saw him throw this spring. It's worth noting that the one day his velocity was down a little, March 14 against the Yankees, it was a colder-than-usual day in Florida and he admitted struggling to find a consistent arm slot, but his curveball and changeup were both sharp and he was throwing them for strikes. Manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker were both impressed with his offspeed stuff that day.

Cecil showed the extra velocity once he was moved to the bullpen last season, averaging 92 mph on his fastball in 11 September relief appearances. It was a pleasant surprise after his average fastball was below 90 mph in each month he started, which continued a downward trend from the previous two years. Cecil, in theory, should be able to maintain that velocity -- which he has shown this spring -- pitching in shorter stints out of the bullpen.

He has his fastball back to what it once was and is now attempting to uncork his old changeup.

Brooks Baseball tells us that Cecil has never used his changeup as much as he did in 2010, while Fangraphs.com's Pitch Values -- which attempts to track what a pitcher's best pitch is -- says that was the same year his changeup was most effective. Not surprisingly, Cecil issued his highest ground-ball rate in 2010 and lowest home-run rate, too. The changeup has also been Cecil’s greatest swing-and-miss pitch throughout his career.

If Cecil enters strictly to matchup against a lefty, he likely won’t turn to the changeup, as the pitch is typically more effective against opposite-side batters because it tends to break away from the hitter. But his changeup has been a useful pitch for him in the past and he believes, in the right situations, it can be once again.

"If I'm going to be a long guy, that's going to be a big pitch for me, as far as keeping hitters off-balance.” Cecil said. “It wasn't really doing too much for me the last two years starting because of the whole velocity thing."

The big thing, Cecil said, is the separation in speed he can generate between his changeup and fastball. Ideally, he wants a difference of 9-10 mph between the two pitches, which he was able to get in 2010.

He said he can remember times last year when his fastball was down to 87 mph but his changeup didn't lose anything, coming in at 82-83, which effectively rendered the pitch useless. And he's right. For instance, the last big-league game Cecil started, Aug. 3 at Oakland, the gap was only five mph, with his changeup averaging 83 and his fastball 88. For what it’s worth, Cecil surrendered two home runs that game, allowed nine hits -- his second most of the year -- and generated no whiffs off his changeup or four-seamer, which he threw a combined 30 times.

"That's not a big enough difference at all, at any level," Cecil said. "So I'm glad I got the velocity back and I will continue to get that pitch where it needs to be.

"I'd like [the changeup] to be around 81-82 and if it's 83-84, it has to have a little bit of lower movement to it than the slower ones do."

Cecil said he often overthrew his changeup when coming out of the bullpen last year because of the adrenaline he entered with, and the data backs that up. The average speed of his changeup was 81-82 mph in 2010-11, was that same speed over his nine starts last season, and then jumped up to 85 over a smaller sample of relief appearances.

"I had it when I was a starter but once I moved to the 'pen, I'm a little more amped up coming out of the 'pen," said Cecil, who admitted it has been a little difficult having to get ready quicker out of the bullpen. "So the changeup started getting a little harder and not much movement on it. That has been kind of a battle, is trying to find that pitch again."

Gibbons would like to see more offspeed from Cecil, who is out of options and would have to clear waivers before being sent to the Minors, thus making him a strong candidate to crack the 25-man roster.

"That's probably how the guy has to be, it makes his fastball that much better," Gibbons said.

It would be a little surprising for the Blue Jays to expose Cecil to waivers because it's unlikely he would clear and he has very good numbers against left-handed hitters over the last three seasons. Toronto could still find a spot for him even if it’s as a situational lefty, especially if Casey Janssen begins the season on the disabled list, which would create another roster spot – perhaps allowing both Cecil and Jeffress to make the team.

Cecil has performed well since a shaky start to the spring and credits a text exchange he had with his wife, Jennifer, after a rough outing in Dunedin, as a wakeup call.

“I just texted back and said, 'I need to be better. No excuses, no umpiring, no errors, no nothing. I have to throw better pitches and I just have to be better. That's the bottom line.’

“I don't like to be babied and my wife knows that and she doesn't.”

With only so much time left this spring to make an impression – Cecil is scheduled to throw three innings against the Rays on Thursday – he must keep that mind frame intact and not let a rough performance affect his psyche.

Cecil’s throwing harder, is reincorporating a pitch that once worked well for him and seems to have an idea of how he can succeed at the big-league level. But if Cecil fails to crack the Opening Day roster, he’ll probably have to implement his plan elsewhere, as his career with the Blue Jays would likely come to an end.

h/t Brooksbaseball.net and Fangraphs.com for stats and information.

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