By Joe Lemire
NEW YORK -- When it came to throwing fastballs in college, Eric Fornataro didn't concern himself much with movement or deception. Like most pitchers hoping to catch the attention of a big league scout, "I just cared about throwing hard," he said of his time at Miami-Dade College.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander sat in the 90-to-93 mile per hour range then, good enough to warrant the Cardinals using their sixth-round pick in 2008 on the then-20-year-old. By his third season in pro ball, however, Fornataro was still in Single-A with an ERA over 5.00. It was around that time that the organization encouraged Fornataro to throw a two-seam fastball, or sinker. Fornataro threw it with the "same wrist action, same effort" as his four-seamer, yet the results are anything but the same.
"I just held it how they told me and threw it, and it just had some crazy movement on it," he said. "They started working with me on it, not even really trying to aim it or hit corners -- just throw it toward the middle or the outer thirds and let it work. It's a crazy pitch."
Tim Leveque, his pitching coach at both short-season Batavia and at Quad Cities, noticed the natural movement and encouraged Fornataro to believe in the pitch and throw it more often. Soon after adding the sinker to his repertoire, Fornataro moved to the bullpen, where his velocity consistently rose to the 93-to-95 mph range, at which point he started advancing more quickly through the minors.
During spring training this year, veteran major league hitters Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Jon Jay stood in the batter's box and tracked the ball as Fornataro threw 25 straight sinkers. Their endorsement of his pitch led the young right-hander to throw it "pretty much 100 percent" of the time. He recalled all of this in Citi Field's visiting clubhouse this week after St. Louis promoted him to the big leagues on April 17. So far, Fornataro has made three appearances and had three perfect 1-2-3 innings by relying on a pitch he never threw before getting drafted.
"You've got to change with the game," he said.
Fornataro is but the latest in a long line of sinker slingers on the Cardinals' pitching staff. It started with former pitching coach Dave Duncan, who was with the club from 1996 through 2011, and has continued. No other organization has as central of a pitching program as the Cardinals do with sinking fastballs. "That's just the philosophy here," St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright said.
"It has a two-pronged approach to it," Leveque, now the organization's minor-league pitching coordinator, said in a telephone interview. "It has a result point to it, where you're trying to limit extra-base hits and generate weak contact and keep the ball inside the ballpark, but it also the psychological benefit to it where you're going to attack the strike zone and be aggressive, which hopefully will lead to either, one, more quick outs or, two, being able to control counts in your favor. [Those] are things we do emphasize in the minor leagues."
The sinker's prevalence has increased at the big league level even if it has declined slightly in St. Louis from the days when Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro and Jake Westbrook were still active and when Jaime Garcia was healthy, but Wainwright reports that "Lance Lynn's sinker has really gotten nasty, and Shelby [Miller] is working on it." (There are, of course, other ways of getting groundballs, too. Michael Wacha, for instance, doesn't throw a two-seamer but gets grounders on 64.8 percent of his pitches, in large part because the downward action on his changeup.)
This is true despite remarkable turnover in the pitching staff in between their four NL pennant-winning seasons of the past decade. Only Jeff Suppan pitched on both the 2004 and '06 World Series clubs; only Wainwright threw in both '06 and '13; only Lynn pitched in both '11 and '13. (Wainwright missed the 2011 season with an arm injury.) Only once since that run began in '04 has St. Louis not been in the top-five in the majors in inducing grounders, while leading the category six of the past 10 times.
Such consistency affirms an organizational commitment to the pitch. Wainwright, for instance, was drafted and developed in the Braves organization, until he was traded to the Cardinals (in a package for outfielder J.D. Drew) before the 2004 season. Learning the sinker was pivotal in his transformation into a dominant starter who can go deep in ballgames.
"I never threw a two-seam fastball at all until I got over here. My first year throwing two-seam fastballs, I threw almost 30 innings more than i ever had in a minor league season and I made all my starts every year. I went from being a 150-inning guy in the minor leagues to 180 -- that's a lot of innings in the minor leagues. It helped me dramatically."
The sinker's benefits are keeping batted balls on the ground, where they only go for extra bases if hit down the foul lines; generating weak contact; and encouraging pitchers to attack the strike zone, which allows them (like Wainwright) to go deeper in games with the same number of pitches. Even though a sinkerballer may allow more hits, they are mostly singles, and it often takes three singles to score a run.
"It's almost impossible to hit a ground ball for a home run," Wainwright said. "It can be done, but you've got to be fast, and something crazy's got to happen."
It's not a popular pitch in amateur baseball, so most learn it in the pro ranks. One exception is reliever Seth Maness, who may have the best sinker on the current Cardinals roster. The way many bullpens have left-handed specialists to get lefty batters out, Maness was essentially the club's ground ball specialist brought in with men on base to get double-play balls during the postseason run. He learned the pitch as a senior at East Carolina from his roommate, Brad Mincey, a Marlins minor leaguer who had Tommy John surgery last year.
"He taught me the grip and said 'try it,'" Maness said last fall. "It was just something I kept trying, trying, trying. At first I didn't think it was much but I started seeing better results each time."
Maness was an 11th-round pick in the 2011 draft who, as a big league rookie in '14, led the majors in inducing grounders with an 86.0 percent rate in his 62 innings of work; that percentage was the best of any pitcher who logged at least 15 innings last year.
"I wasn't blessed to be able to throw 97, 98 miles an hour," Maness said, "so I had to maneuver my way around the strike zone.
That sinker is the gift that keeps on giving. Maness was playing catch with fellow minor leaguer Tyler Lyons a week before the 2013 season, when the lefty Lyons tried mirroring Maness' unorthodox grip for the pitch -- rather than placing his fingers along the two seams at their most narrow point, like most pitchers throw a sinker, Maness' fingers straddle one of the laces, making it like more of a one-seam pitch, than two.
"That to me was really weird initially but something I've grown accustomed to," said Lyons, who also debuted in 2013. Lyons had a 59.7 percent ground ball rate in 53 big league innings last year. The club didn't teach him the pitch but encouraged its use. "As I kept throwing it and started to see results," he added, "absolutely [the organization] pushed me to keep throwing it and keep building off of it."
That's one main way the Cardinals have continued to rise -- by staying down.
(All numbers via STATS, LLC.)
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.