2018 saw a handful of pitchers make a step forward by moving away from the sinker.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that pitchers are throwing fewer sinkers than ever before. Matt Trueblood at Baseball Prospectus wrote about how 2018 was the first year that sliders outnumbered total sinkers thrown.
“As teams breed young pitchers, however, they’re not looking for guys to manipulate and sequence with multiple fastballs. They want, and are succeeding with, guys who can spin four-seamers up in the zone and sliders or curveballs that break hard off that plane.”
As Trueblood also pointed out, it’s not a league-wide phenomenon that eschewing the sinker has worked for everybody. At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards looked at mid-season results from sinkerballers last year and found that there isn’t a correlation between abandoning the sinker and success. Corey Kluber threw more sinkers than ever in 2018 and he was still great. Masahiro Tanaka has been throwing fewer sinkers for the last two years and he’s been around the same or worse.
Of course, cutting out the sinker hasn’t worked for everyone. Pitching performance is too reliant on interdependent variables for one change to work for an entire population.
For the pitchers it has benefitted, though, it’s been a major boon. It’s helped both veterans revitalize their careers and young pitchers reach their potential. Here are a few of the biggest benefactors and why abandoning the pitch has worked for them.
Among the many adjustments the Astros made with Gerrit Cole, cutting out the sinker was one of the more pronounced. As a member of the Pirates, Cole threw his sinker roughly every fifth pitch. With Houston, Cole only threw it a few times per game. The Astros wanted Cole to throw his fastball up in the zone whereas before he preferred to keep it on the glove-side part of the plate.
Cole has always been able to generate more swings and misses at the top of the strike zone with his fourseamer. When he hit the letters with more intentionality, his whiff rate skyrocketed.
His sinker had never been a good swing-and-miss pitch for him, so abandoning it in favor of a pitch that gets waved at a quarter of the time made all the sense in the world.
Foltynewicz’s situation was similar to Cole’s. Foltynewicz’s fastball has sat in the high-90s with the ability to hit triple digits. As such, his fastball has worked best at the top of the zone. However, Foltynewicz hasn’t moved away from the sinker completely. He still threw it 15.8 percent of the time, but that was down from 27 percent in 2017.
Like Cole, Foltynewicz relied more on his fastball in 2018, but he also became more confident in his slider. It became his second most used pitch, and the results were astronomical. Pitch Info estimated that his slider was worth 23.8 runs this season. Only Miles Mikolas, Jhoulys Chacin, and Patrick Corbin had more valuable sliders. That’s not a list that would have meant much a year ago, but that’s another indication of how much the pitching landscape has changed.
Our own Devan Fink already wrote about how Wade Miley rode his newfound cutter to a spot in the Brewers postseason rotation. Over the last two years, the cutter has become his primary fastball at the expense of his fourseamer and sinker.
The results have clearly been profound for the pitcher who had to settle for a minor-league contract. When you look at the movement differences between the sinker and the curve, it’s no wonder why Miley has had more success.
Both his fourseam and sinker had below-average movement, but his cutter had above average drop. Considering the velocity difference between his cutter and sinker is negligible, opting to throw the former was an easy decision.
A major reason why Freeland moved away from the sinker in 2018 is because it was a less valuable tool for getting right-handed hitters out. In an interview with Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer, Freeland said:
Last year we discovered after the first half that guys were looking for sinkers down and away, because they knew I would be throwing them, and I started getting hurt throwing those pitches.
Freeland adjusted by throwing his fastball on the hands of right-handed hitters. He also became more confident in his changeup.
Here’s the movement on his changeup in 2017 with horizontal movement mapped to the x-axis and vertical movement on the y-axis.
Here’s his changeup again but in 2018.
The movement on his offspeed pitch became much tighter and as a result, more effective. With the changeup, he hit the strike zone with more regularity. Because it was less prone to being thrown poorly, it also induced more swings and misses.
For these pitchers, it wasn’t that their sinker was bad, it was that they had better options to throw. That’s not going to be true of every pitcher, but as teams become more creative with their pitching philosophies and development, it could be true for most.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.