There might be no better pitch in baseball than a good change-up. The best ones look like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand but break hard down and to the side at the last second. When thrown perfectly, a good change-up is virtually unhittable.
It’s a pitch that Missouri junior Jacob Cantleberry possesses.
In his first two starts of 2019, the junior college transfer struck out 20 batters in just 12 innings pitched without giving up a single run. Cantleberry continued his early dominance in a relief appearance against South Dakota State on Saturday by striking out seven Jackrabbit hitters in just 4⅔ innings of work. He did give up his first two earned runs of the year against South Dakota State, but his season ERA is still a stingy 1.08.
Cantleberry’s early success has been one of the positive storylines in a middling 6-5 start for the Tigers. The most obvious reason for his hot start to 2019? The aforementioned off-speed pitch.
“It’s a change-up I wouldn’t want to face,” Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser said about Cantleberry’s change-up. “It just has such late (movement) and a lot of depth to it. I’ve said it before: There’s a lot of big leaguers who wish they could throw that change-up.”
Missouri catcher Chad McDaniel has seen his fair share of pitches throughout his career; he’s caught pitchers such as Bryce Montes de Oca, TJ Sikkema and Michael Plassmeyer. But none of those dominant arms possessed a change-up quite like Cantleberry’s.
“It’s one of the best change-ups I’ve ever seen,” McDaniel said. “The best thing about his change-up is it’s unpredictable. I definitely had to get used to (catching) it the first couple times. It took me a little while.”
What makes Cantleberry’s change-up so different is the obscure spin he puts on the ball. Most change-ups start buried in a pitcher’s hand with an extra finger or two on top to slow it down and create downward, tailing movement.
The Missouri starter’s grip is no different than the rest, but he produces a knuckling effect that makes the movement unpredictable. Because of this, it’s hard for opposing hitters to gauge how much Cantleberry’s change-up will move, regardless of if they recognize the pitch as it leaves his hand.
“It’s weird; I can’t really explain it to be honest with you,” Cantleberry said. “We don’t really know why it does what it does. It’s always been my bread and butter, but it’s a weird pitch for sure. I hold it the same as everyone else does. It’s just about reps with it, throwing it, you know? Kind of getting a feel for it more than anything. I screw around with it a lot.”
Although Cantleberry’s change-up will be crucial for him to register getting swings-and-misses this season, it’s the development of a third pitch that will prove vital to his success once Southeastern Conference play comes around.
Throughout his life, including his two years at San Jacinto Community College, Cantleberry was mainly a two-pitch type of guy. Although his filthy change-up and tailing, sinking fastball were good enough for him to dominate high school and junior college, Missouri pitching coach Fred Corral decided he needed more and added a slider to his arsenal.
Cantleberry’s recently learned tertiary pitch hasn’t seen a lot of success thus far, and he’s still learning the feel for it. But being able to keep hitters off balance and not sitting strictly on a fastball or change-up should prove fortuitous if he can spot up his slider. It has the potential to be an effective pitch for the surging lefty, as it breaks down and to the right as opposed to his other two pitches that tail to the left.
Cantleberry will make his next appearance as Missouri’s starter at 2 p.m. Saturday against Northwestern at Taylor Stadium.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.