James McArthur is a 6'7, 217-pound, right-handed freshman pitcher who arrived in Oxford as a Perfect Game All-American after putting up a 6-1 record and a 1.82 ERA during his senior year of high school. Over the course of fall ball and winter ball, he showed enough to the coaches to earn the job as Ole Miss' midweek starter coming into the 2016 season.
All of that buzz was quickly silenced after two rocky starts. He only lasted 3.0 innings against Arkansas State in the midweek opener, allowing three hits, two earned runs and a pair of walks while striking out two. Memphis was even worse: a lifeless fastball and a flat breaking ball led to five earned runs off six hits in just 2.1 innings. The body language wasn't there and you could tell the young man was struggling mentally.
Most figured that McArthur had lost the starting gig after those two outings, but Mike Bianco stuck with him this past Tuesday against SEMO. When McArthur looked up at the scoreboard after a bounce back outing, he saw six hits and two earned runs scattered across 5.0 innings. He hadn't walked a single batter, and when he turned to right field, he saw six Kinnucan's Ks. You can't help but think he smiled a little after getting his first career win in a Rebel uniform.
So what exactly was it that helped Big Tex make the turnaround?
McArthur had better control of his changeup
In baseball, the changeup is the equalizer for guys who don't have overpowering stuff. If you do not have a great fastball, how do you make it better? By being efficient with your change up. It's slower than a fastball, but thrown with the exact same arm action. In order to be effective with the changeup, the arm speed must stay the same. If you do this, you can ultimately control your opponent's bat speed.
In the first two starts, hitters were really squaring up McArthur's fastballs because he couldn't get his off-speed stuff over for a strike. It didn't help that those fastballs were being left up, which led to some booming doubles in the gap.
Against SEMO, however, McArthur found control of his changeup and had the Redhawk hitters on their heels for most of the five innings he was out there. Once you can get a hitter guessing, it's over. Tex was able to effectively change speeds and go from 93 to 83 which led to more ground ball outs and a career-high six strikeouts.
A fastball in disguise
As a former coach, the foundation of teaching hitting has always been "see the ball, hit the ball". You teach to read the spin of the ball or to look for the seams, which will always reveal whether it's a fastball, curveball, knuckleball, etc. An effective changeup, however, can be disguised to look just like a fastball.
McArthur made his money against SEMO by disguising his changeup. After working ahead in the count and getting the hitters on their heels, he would come back with a change that looked like a 90-plus mph fastball out of his hand, but would ultimately hit the breaks and nosedive. Hitters were unable to shy away from it, diving down low to chase.
It's the silent assassin in a pitcher's arsenal that can be an enforcer when it's on.
How can it be effective when it isn't effective?
The best thing about pitching is how you can play mind games with the hitter. When you are able to get ahead in the count, the hitter is essentially at your mercy. Will he go to the junk now? Or will he try to blow another fastball by me? Inside or outside? This is all running through the batter's mind as he's stepping out the box, fixing his batting gloves, staring at the barrel and taking a deep breath before returning to your sick twisted game of pitch and catch. So what happens when your changeup is working for a few innings but then it starts to miss a little? Well, it actually doesn't matter sometimes.
Because baseball calls for mental toughness in every aspect, this is where you can really play mental warfare. Especially when you're James McArthur and have a 93-mph fastball in your back pocket. Once you have the hitter admitting to himself that the changeup is really good and they're having a tough time hitting it, it really doesn't matter how long it's effective, you've already won. At times, hitters can make it too complicated and can back themselves into a second-guessing corner. Now, you've got them looking for the changeup so by the time they recognize it's a fastball, it's too late.
After two, let's be real, abysmal starts in the midweek, McArthur really made adjustments with his mechanics and turned in a great performance to earn his first win. It wasn't all the change up that made his night, but it was significantly more effective in the early going and led to a lot of ground ball outs and swing and misses. Bianco obviously has a lot of confidence in the Texan and for good reason, he has shown tons of upside in his three starts. But, the change up was a key cog in him keeping hitters off-balance and getting the big out when it was needed most.