I love how everything works in cycles, and when the cycle repeats itself, there are people who swear that they’re experiencing something brand new.
Years ago, pitchers like Mel Stottlemyer made their living throwing sinking fastballs. Back then, the pitch was in fact called a sinker.
Then a few years later, the pitch dujour became the split-fingered fastball.
Then a few years after that, the change up became the “IT pitch.”
But not too long after that, announcers began calling a pitch that looked a whole lot like a sinker, the “two-seam fastball.”
That name has continued to stick around, but lately, you’re hearing “sinker” being used more and more.
“Sinker” is starting a new cycle.
And just like unwrapping a new toy at the holidays, the sinker will be used – AND ABUSED – until pitchers get bored with their new toy, and go back to their “old toys.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the sinker. It is a very effective pitch. Being a former “control pitcher,” I had to throw a sinker because my straight fastball was very hittable when not throw to the spot I wanted. (But I still threw a straight fastball!) It’s a great pitch to get ground balls, ground balls that turn into double plays, and frustrating big-swinging hitters looking to lift that first pitch of the at bat into the ozone layer.
But as a control pitcher, I gave up a lot of balls that found their way through the infield. I also saw a lot of ground balls get booted by infielders, or take a bad hops at the worst possible time. (As if there’s a good time for a ground ball to take a bad hop when you’re playing defense?)
This is why I have a problem with sinkers being the “Pitch-to-Contact Pitch.”
The best example that illustrated my point: Detroit’s Rick Porcello.
Back when Porcello was in high school, Rick was a hard-throwing stud. In fact, it’s been documented that Porcello touched 97mph of the radar gun a couple of times. (Keep in mind, “touched” doesn’t mean every fastball he threw was 97. It just means he was capable of getting it up there from time-to-time.)
Porcello had a great fastball, an over-the-top curveball, and a developing change up.
But the minute he signed with the Tigers, he was instructed to throw the sinker… a lot.
Although his strike outs plummeted, his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was ridiculous, and Porcello quickly made his way up the ladder to Comerica.
To be fair, his sinker is great. His rookie year was outstanding. Porcello made a run at the Rookie of the Year, and he was touted as one of the game’s next generation’s big players.
Then came his second season…
Since Porcello lived off of his sinker – and hitters now knew that – he got off to a rough start. It got so bad, he was sent down to AAA Toledo for a short stint in order to “get straightened out.”
When it was all said and done (the season, not his career of course!) despite a better second half, Porcello finished with a losing record, and ERA nearly one run higher than the year before, less innings pitched than his first year (remember during his first year the Tigers sat him for nearly three weeks, too) while giving up almost 26 more hits than innings pitched. (The year before: only six more hits than innings pitched.)
This is yet another reason why I can’t stand pitch-to-contact!
Now I know it’s not fair to compare Porcello’s dominance as a high school stud, to that of his time in a big league uniform. And I know some people will write his second season off as the infamous “sophomore jinx.”
But that doesn’t stop me from being critical of the way he has been changed from a hard-throwing kid capable of strike outs, to a ground ball pitcher that gives up too many hits given the stuff he has.
All in the name of “saving” his arm, throwing fewer pitches, and of course Pitch to Contact!
You know why Roy Halladay has hard-to-hit sinker? It’s because he throws other pitches in “sinker counts.”
You know why Ubaldo Jimenez’s sinker is practically unhittable? It because he throws a straight fastball up in the zone, and a split-finger in the dirt. (the same can be said for Lincecum, too.)
You know why Tim Hudson can “live” off of his sinker? Because he throws a solid slider, and occasionally shows a straight fastball up in the strike zone. (Funny thing: The Braves were notorious for banning their minor league pitchers fro throwing a sinker. Instead they wanted all of their pitchers to learn how to throw their “four-seam fastball,” along with their other pitches.)
This is not Pitch to Contact. It’s simply pitching.
I like Porcello. We went to the same high school (several years apart). I’ve heard nothing but great things about Rick as a person, his work ethic, etc. But I hope for his sake, he gets a little bored with his shiny toy, and starts playing with his “old toys” that got him drafted in the first place.
In my opinion, that’s when we’ll see exactly what being considered one of the game’s young talents really means!
P.S. – Porcello is just one example. This is the latest trend in baseball: telling young power arms to become ground ball pitchers – even when they are capable of being more dominant – and throw fewer pitches – by NOT forgetting what got them there.
P.P.S. – Part Three is on the way! I’ll have proof that Pitch to Contact does not lower pitch counts. In fact, well, I’ll tell you soon!