When the Rockies came to town this year, there was a tap on my shoulder. Adam Ottavino wanted to talk pitching. For some reason, I didn’t turn on my recorder. That’s fine, I guess, sometimes you just lose yourself in the conversation and want to kick yourself later when you look down. We had a good time talking, is what I remember. I even got some grips pics from him.
But anyway, I don’t have the exact quotes and so I can’t provide you a break down of Ottavino’s season peppered with the interesting things that Ottavino said about his craft. Just know that, yes, he thinks about platoon splits. And the primarily fastball/slider righty thinks about changeups. But a changeup hasn’t worked for him yet, and the strategies he’s had to deal with platoon splits have had varying success.
What stuck with me since that conversation was a pitcher he was interested in: Steve Cishek. Really, Ottavino was interested in how a primarily fastball/slider pitcher could avoid platoon splits. So, Adam, if you’re out there, let’s take a look at Steve Cishek for a bit. The rest of you that are still here, come along for the ride!
Cishek has faced 1075 batters and thrown 4314 pitches. Only 150 of those pitches have been changeups, and this year he threw less than ten. He only threw 418 four-seamers over that time period, too, so he’s mostly a sinker/slider pitcher. Sinkers and sliders have among the worst platoon splits in the pantheon of pitches. Steve Cishek has a 2.58 FIP against lefties and a 2.59 against righties over his career. So he has, indeed, managed to avoid platoon splits somehow.
The first thing you might think is that Cishek throws two different kinds of sliders. That was how Luke Gregerson solved his platoon splits, and others have used the same approach. Ottavino himself has two sliders — one more of a slow, big, looping slider, and one more of a snapping, sharp, fast slider. He admitted that he was actually there when the light went off for Gregerson in the Cardinals’ farm system. You can see the two grips below.
The slider grip on the left and the curve grip on the right are very similar, but the raised finger and slightly different release help Ottavino pull down on the slider on the right more like a curveball.
But if you look at Gregerson’s two main sliders, it looks like he has one that sits in the eighties and has vertical movement above zero, and then another that sits in the seventies and has more drop. Ottavino has a similar breaking ball map:
Steve Cishek’s slider map is more homogenous, and he has no slider that has more drop:
Cishek’s sliders are more clustered than Gregerson’s in movement and velocity. If he does get a little more movement with less velocity, it’s horizontal movement, not the vertical movement that can differentiate it from the faster slider. Cishek’s sliders are also more tightly clustered than Ottavino’s sliders. Maybe we can say that it’s not multiple sliders that have helped Cishek evade platoon splits.
The next thing that jumps out at you is that Cishek’s sinker and slider are a little different than the average bear. Let’s compare the average movement and velocity on Cishek’s sinker and slider to the league’s averages.
Huh. You might call those pitches sliders and sinkers because that’s how he grips them, or they fit some general movement patterns, but they’re very different from the league’s average versions of those pitches. Considering the league average righty throws his curveball 78 mph with six inches of drop, you could say that, by movement, Cishek’s slider is somewhere between a slider and a curveball. It has three inches more drop than an average slider, at least, and two more inches of horizontal movement.
One of Cishek’s secrets is his release angle. It’s why his sinker has six inches more drop than your average sinker.
When you throw from that angle, you change the physics of the pitch. That’s because the spin he puts on the ball has more in common with a traditional three-quarter curveball than a traditional three-quarter slot sinker — something you might notice when we you look at Brad Ziegler.
It’s possible, from that analysis, that Cishek’s slider functions more like a traditional slurve — and that makes sense from the movement numbers above — but we still don’t know how he’s escaped platoon splits.
Except that his sinker moves basically like a changeup. Remove the velocity from the equation, and Cishek’s sinker has almost change-like movement:
It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting to put those average movements next to each other. And look at the results on Cishek’s sinker, and you’ll identify the source of his platoon-neutral magic. Against righties, the sinker has had a 4.2% whiff rate and a 68% ground-ball rate. Against lefties, the sinker has had a 9.8% whiff rate and a 45% ground-ball rate. Like a change-up, it’s had a reverse platoon split.
So, all of this work ends with an apology to Adam Ottavino. We might know better why Cishek has avoided platoon splits — his funky delivery has turned his sinker into a platoon-buster with drop and fade and velocity — but we can’t necessarily turn this into a road map. Unless Ottavino can drop his arm slot down for his sinker, he’s better off working on a changeup or refining his two breaking balls.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.