Twilight of the Closers: Trevor Hoffman’s changeup was millions of years in the making

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So far as closers go, Trevor Hoffman stands out. Only one pitcher has managed more career saves. With that degree of domination, the image of the flamethrowing, overpowering pitcher immediately comes to mind. Very early in his career, Hoffman fell into that mold, somewhat. Ironically, however, that brief span of time saw the 6’1’’ righty throwing mid-90s but not quite his future Hall of Fame form. After taking over the San Diego Padres’ closer position in early 1994, he registered 20 saves and 10.93 K/9 during the strike shortened season. While Hoffman continued throwing a mid- to high-80’s fastball for most of his career, his most devastating pitch barely broke seventy-five miles an hour.

An injury while playing beach football then volleyball during the 1994 Major League Baseball strike damaged Hoffman’s throwing arm. By the time the next season began, he hadn’t fully healed. He pitched with a torn rotator cuff that ended up being bad enough to need surgery in the fall. He still managed a respectable 31 saves bum-arm and all, but it was obvious he was far from his best.

The injury hobbled Hoffman’s fastball. The mid-90s fastball he’d rode into the majors with disappeared and he’d never hit 95 mph again. Yet, he continued to be effective on the mound. Much of that was due to his reliance on a new pitch in his repertoire. A devastating changeup that froze batters, keeping them off-balance enough that they were unable to catch up to his middling fastballs.

In 1994, Hoffman learned how to throw his devastating changeup from a teammate, Donnie Elliott, who was his daily throwing partner. At the time, he threw a changeup that was a something of a cross between a circle changeup and a four finger changeup. When he gripped the ball, his fingers from pinky to middle came over the top while his thumb and index fingers ran along the open end of the seams of the baseball came together to form an “ok” sign on the open end of the “horseshoe.” (Sometimes, you’ll see the index finger tucked further back and under the thumb forming a circle in the process.)

By his own admission, Hoffman never felt comfortable throwing the pitch because the ball always seemed to be slipping in his hand. Making matters worse, when he would throw it, his elbow would get underneath the pitch, essentially floating the baseball toward home plate.

Close up of Trevor Hoffman throwing his palmball changeup

Elliott taught Hoffman a new grip to throw his changeup. It involved rotating the ball so that his thumb and index finger ran along and converged on a seam while also shifting the baseball so that only the middle and fourth finger supported it. From there, Hoffman experimented a little and pushed the ball deeper into his hand so that it rested against his palm. Now, it was his thumb doing all of the supporting opposite the middle finger.

The biggest difference between Hoffman’s unimpressive circle change that he threw early in his career and the “palmball” changeup he dominated hitters with came down to the smallest adjustment. It became the signature of his devastating changeup. Just as he was about to release the ball, he would pinch the seam of the baseball between his thumb and index finger.

Just like that, one of the greatest closers to ever play the game was born.

***

Pitching can be considered the art of throwing. Everyone can throw (normally pretty badly) and with enough practice do it adequately. However, only a handful of people can pitch (compared with the general population) and even fewer can be considered an elite pitcher. There’s more to it than just tossing a ball from A to B.

The ability to throw evolved as a result of specific changes in the bodies of our ancient ancestors. I’m talking millions-of-years-ancient. When the skill did emerge, it became an important by product of the new hominin body form, allowing them to hunt (or attack each other) from a distance, amongst other things.

The general motion consists of cocking back the arm, a slight turn of the hip, and maybe even a half-step forward. For most of us, throwing is all arm and shoulder. It’s also precisely the wrong way to execute. It’s begging for an arm injury. In order to generate more power, the entire body needs to be involved. Professional baseball players are masters of that.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the biggest change in the evolution of the human hand had nothing to do with the hand at all.

So what exactly happens when a pitcher throws to home plate? I asked Mike Belmont from the Baseball Center in Manhattan to break things down for us. What he described was a motion, broken into parts, designed to achieve maximum thrust with minimal strain on the body.

When a pitcher like Trevor Hoffman pitches, his entire body works in unison to produce maximum arm velocity. It comes down to transferring built-up kinetic energy that begins with the windup and ends with the release of the baseball from the hand.
“To throw properly you want to use your entire body to create momentum and turn it into arm speed,” says Belmont. “The body should be moving towards the plate with the back leg driving you forward. When the front foot lands you use that momentum to turn the hips and shoulders, pulling the arm through like a whip to create arm speed without relying solely on the arm and shoulder.”

Every aspect of a pitcher’s motion can be traced back to evolutionary changes that came about after the bifurcation of Pan and Homo branches. (Pan led to modern-day chimpanzees, among others, while Homo led to us.) From the outset, the pitcher’s motion relies on one of the most important evolutionary changes separating humans from other primates. Bipedalism, also referred to as upright walking. From the recoiling windup to the long, forward stride that drives the pitcher towards home plate, it makes everything possible. If you don’t believe me, try throwing a ball from a crawling or even kneeling position.

Bipedalism was the game changer. No longer needing to hang from a tree and support the body’s weight when walking resulted in an avalanche of small adaptations that had major ramifications. Hips changed. Legs changed. Arms changed. Shoulders changed. (We’ll address all those adaptations in future installments.) Most importantly for the Trevor Hoffmans of the world, our hands changed. Somewhat counterintuitively, the biggest change in the evolution of the human hand had nothing to do with the hand at all.

The hand is an ancient body part/organ in primates that has been highly conserved. The so-called Pan-Homo Last Common Ancestor (LCA) is the point in our evolutionary lineages after which our ancestors diverged from those of our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees. It’s the last time we were all close enough to hit the same barbecue. When the changes came, the world would never be the same. The subtle differences between the Homo sapien hand and Pan troglodytes hand resulted in profound functional differences, especially in terms of dexterity.

The hands of proto-human basal hominins (Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardipithecus) and, later, australopiths began to show the hallmarks that would go on to make Trevor Hoffman’s career possible. By the time early Homo emerged, the tools necessary to throw a four-seam fastball were pretty much there (except for the baseball, of course).

Screenshot taken from paper, “Evolution of the early hominin hand”

If you compare the hand of Homo habilis with a chimpanzee’s, the first thing that jumps out is how long a chimpanzee’s fingers are compared with its thumb. On the other hand, H. hablilis’s thumb is much longer in proportion to its other fingers. In modern humans, the thumb/finger proportion is even starker. This single difference allows humans to close their hands and have the tip of their thumb comfortably meet the tips of their fingers. Chimpanzees are unable to do this and if they were to grip a baseball, it would only be with their four fingers or with their thumb alone.

Human thumbs also evolved to be much stronger. The bones are stronger and are therefore able to withstand greater external loads. When we pinch something between our fingers and thumbs, the amount of pressure is considerably more than other primates can. This ability is mitigated by joints that are larger than apes’. Moreover, even though human hands share the exact same major muscles as other primates, our thumbs have more muscles attached to them compared with other hominoids. The two main muscles found in humans but absent in apes are the flexor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis breves.

So what does evolution have to do with Trevor Hoffman’s changeup?

The final evolutionary change that made Trevor Hoffman’s changeup possible is the development of what scientists call broad distal tuberosities. You and I call them fingertips. If you take a look at them, you’ll notice that the pads of our fingers are actually quite wide. If you compare them with other hominoids, you’d see how much wider then are. Broader fingertips increase the surface area of skin on objects we hold. This allows for precision grips involving the thumb and fingers. And if nothing else, Hoffman’s changeup certainly entailed a precision grip.

All of these changes resulted in a profound change in the ability of the hand to manipulate objects. Yet, beyond the ability to earn millions of dollars throwing a baseball, what evolutionary advantage did this provide? One of the most important advances the new Homo hand resulted in was the ability to create and work with tools. And we know where that brought us: the ability to navigate a smart phone with one hand.

***

So what does evolution have to do with Trevor Hoffman’s changeup?

The little pinch.

It was the difference maker, the coup de grace, because without it, the pitch tended to veer into left handed hitters, something that almost begs them to hit it out of the park. By briefly massaging the seam between his thumb and index finger, Hoffman was able to keep the pitch from wandering into a leftie’s hot zone. Instead, it just lingered while hitters whiffed over and over again.

Trevor Hoffman

Brad Asmus, the former Padres catcher, summed up the pitch best when he said, “It doesn’t move down, like a splitter. It moves on a straight line, but it just doesn’t get there.”

Trevor Hoffman’s changeup was one of the greatest weapons any closing pitcher possessed. Fortune played a big role in shaping Hoffman’s approach as a pitcher after his injury. However, the relatively minor tweak that made it possible was millennia in the making.

WORDS: Marc Landas

SOURCES: “The Evolution of the Early Hominin Hand,” Brian G. Richmond, Neil T. Roach, and Kelly R. Ostrofsky; “Change Artist,” Buster Olney; “13 Youth Pitching Grips Every Baseball Coach Should Know,” Steven Ellis.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons; GIPHY

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