By Chris Cwik
The sinker is on the rise.
The pitch, also called a two-seam fastball, stresses results over style. It's not going to induce whiffs like a slider, and it doesn't have the vertical movement of a curve ball. Despite that, usage of the sinker taken a step forward in recent seasons. The offering has not only become a key component of organizational pitching philosophies, but also has emerged as the preferred weapon behind some recent career revivals.
How much has usage of the sinker increased in recent seasons? In 2007, the first year pitch tracking was available, the sinker was thrown about 35 percent of the time, according to BrooksBaseball.net. That figure climbed to 38 percent in 2010 and 2011, before peaking at 39 percent in 2012. Since then, usage has been steady at 38 percent. Those differences don't seem all that extreme until you consider the number of pitches thrown each year. Last year, 709,916 pitches were thrown during the regular season. While the percentage increase doesn't seem large, the large sample of pitches thrown makes small changes somewhat significant.
There are a couple reasons behind the increased usage of the sinker. For one thing, nearly every MLB pitching coach will stress the importance of getting ground balls, something a good sinker can accomplish. The most prominent team to utilize the sinker in recent seasons has been the Pirates, who received all-star caliber performances from both A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano in recent years by convincing them to utilize their sinker more often.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage confirmed via email that the pitch is part of the team's philosophy, but was careful to point out that both Burnett and Liriano had good sinkers when they came to Pittsburgh. Searage is right about that, but deserves credit for getting both players to embrace using the pitch more often. Still, Searage doesn't want people to think the sinker is a miracle pitch. He stresses the use of both the sinker and four-seam fastball in order to keep hitters off balance. "It wasn't the cure ball," he said. "[Burnett and Liriano] would use the four-seam in sequences. So, they are not totally selling out on the sinker."
"I believe the two fastballs compliment each other," he continued. "The hitter has to respect both unless you're primarily a heavy sinker pitcher. However, even then, you must keep them honest to both sides of the zone." That last statement hints at one of the benefits Searage sees with the pitch: "The two-seamer can be used away, and also used inside to the glove side of the pitcher." The movement a sinker provides makes it more useful than a four-seam fastball in this instance. A right-hander, for example, can throw a sinker on the outside corner against a right-handed hitter, hoping the pitch will hit the outer half of the strike zone with its late movement. If the pitcher chooses to throw inside on a right-hander, the late movement can cause the pitch to get in on his hands, causing weak contact.
The added movement is likely one of the reasons we've seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. "As you lose velocity you need to add something," says Pavlidis. "Movement is a good choice. So you'll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact."
Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. "As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow," Bannister said. "If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels."
Bannister's statement certainly appears to be true when we look at the recent pitchers who have experienced success with the sinker. Burnett and Fernando Rodney fit the bill of veterans looking to improve despite their age. The same can be said of Scott Kazmir, who had to compensate after a number of arm injuries. Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano are slightly different cases. McCarthy opted for the sinker because he "didn't want to suck at baseball anymore." Liriano still had solid velocity, but was likely looking for an edge after two straight seasons with a 5.00+ ERA.
Bannister believes it's natural for older players to gravitate toward the pitch. "The sinker can actually get better as the arm slows down and less spin is put on the ball," Bannister said. "So you will see many pitchers experiment with it or other types of pitches such as change ups and splits as they get older and physically aren't as talented as they used to be." Bannister added that most of the pitchers who have been successful in their late thirties/early forties, like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, throw some type of sinker.
If the benefits of the pitch are so great, why aren't more pitchers throwing a sinker? "It is difficult to throw a useful sinker," according to Bannister. "Most people when they naturally pick up a baseball and throw it towards a target will do so with an overhand release with backspin, and so generating sink is a rarer skill because to me it is unnatural." Because of that, Bannister rarely used the pitch when he was in the majors. He admits that he always worked on a sinker, but found that his ball had natural movement to his glove side.
Due to that movement, Bannister developed a cutter as a substitute for the sinker. "The cutter doesn't generate as ideal of a batted ball result as an elite sinker, but it was far superior to my below average four-seam fastball which generated mainly fly balls and very few whiffs," he says. Though it may not have been the ideal pitch, Bannister credits his cutter as the reason he reached the majors. "My cutter changed me from a Double-A talent pitcher into a serviceable Major League pitcher and it helped me get the most out of my physical ability," said Bannister. As his example highlights, not all pitchers are capable of throwing an effective sinker, even if they realize the upside of using the pitch.
Still, it's incredibly difficult for a pitcher to get by using solely a four-seam fastball. "It takes a combination of exceptional physical talent in order to generate the necessary power to get major-league hitters out with a traditional four-seam fastball, and 99 percent of players out there will never reach that level," according to Bannister. Because of that, the sinker has emerged as the ideal complementary offering to pitchers experiencing declining numbers. Though the pitch's usage may have already peaked, it's clear teams have seen the benefit the sinker offers. It not only can get the results most organizations are looking for, but can be the catalyst behind a struggling pitcher's second act.
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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.