Grading the Pitches: 2016 MLB Sinkers, AL Sliders

Changeups: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveballs: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Cutters and Splitters: MLB Starters.
Four-Seamers: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Two-Seamers: MLB Starters.

With May running out of days, it’s about time we laid to rest our series evaluating the individual pitches of 2016 ERA-qualifying starting pitchers. By the end of the week, we’ll be done. I’m splitting up the final two articles in a slightly unorthodox manner in order to make them run about the same length. There were so many good sliders in the NL last season that they deserve their own article later this week. Today, it’s the sinkers in both leagues, plus the AL sliders.

For those of you new to this series, we’re giving all of the pitches a letter grade, weighted 50% on bat-missing and 50% on contact management. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Let’s start it off with two tables that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – MLB Sinkers
Sabathia 85 7.5% A 35.1%
Lester 76 5.2% B+ 13.0%
Arrieta 81 6.9% B+ 44.0%
Finnegan 83 7.6% B+ 53.7%
Tanaka 101 3.9% B 21.3%
Kluber 104 3.9% B 37.4%
Graveman 111 4.8% B 60.7%
Volquez 112 4.3% B 41.4%
Santiago 121 8.3% B 63.8%
Hendricks 84 4.0% B 45.0%
Syndergaard 94 6.6% B 21.4%
Nelson 94 4.5% B 48.0%
Iwakuma 134 4.4% C+ 26.1%
Leake 116 4.0% C+ 52.4%
Tomlin 120 1.8% C 8.6%
Wainwright 137 3.4% C 27.0%

2016 Pitch Grades – AL Sliders
Verlander 66 15.6% B+ 18.3%
Nolasco 68 15.2% B+ 32.8%
Rodon 72 18.8% B+ 26.0%
Pineda 96 24.1% B+ 40.3%
Kluber 75 15.0% B+ 23.5%
Perez, M. 67 8.7% B 9.7%
Sabathia 70 11.8% B 24.3%
Archer 94 19.0% B 40.4%
Keuchel 84 17.8% B 26.8%
Porcello 87 11.1% B 12.9%
Tanaka 88 16.2% B 28.0%
Miley 90 15.1% B 20.6%
Smyly 94 14.9% B 22.6%
Sale 103 16.0% B 25.1%
Santana, E. 111 16.9% B 39.0%
Iwakuma 73 8.1% C+ 21.9%
Odorizzi 80 5.3% C+ 9.4%
Stroman 119 15.9% C+ 11.4%
Weaver, Jr. 136 7.7% C 17.0%
Tillman 148 13.3% C 15.6%
Gausman 149 12.8% C 13.3%
Happ 164 10.2% D+ 12.7%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting hairs very tightly in some cases.

The sinker had the lowest swing-and-miss rate of any pitch in 2016; at 5.4%, it was fractionally below the two-seamer’s 5.5% mark. NL qualifiers managed contact much better with their sinkers, with an average Adjusted Contact Score of 95.6; AL qualifiers posted a 103.7 mark. The color-coding is based on those league-specific averages.

Sliders, on the other hand, had the highest swing-and-miss rate of any individual pitch, with MLB ERA qualifiers posting an average whiff rate of 16.1%. AL qualifiers managed contact at a near average clip with their sliders, posting an average Adjusted Contact Score of 97.0. As we’ll see later this week, NL pitchers took that to another level.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the sinkers and sliders thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above. The majority of the pitchers we will discuss are above average at both core disciplines: bat-missing and contact management. We’ll tackle the sinkers first, followed by the sliders.

Grade A – CC Sabathia, Yankees
Sabathia was the 2016 AL Contact Manager of the Year, and his sinker was a big reason why. It was his most frequently used pitch, and it missed an above-average number of bats in addition to inducing plenty of grounders and thwarting contact authority.

He was a bit unlucky on all BIP types; his Unadjusted Contact Scores were higher than his adjusted marks across the board (157 vs. 90 on flies, 107 vs. 95 on liners and 123 vs. 84 on grounders, 117 vs. 85 overall).

Sabathia didn’t throw his sinker very hard (89.0 mph average, fourth slowest among MLB qualifiers), and while it lacked notable vertical movement (5.9 inches), its 8.9 inches of horizontal movement ranked second among that group.

Because of his bad luck on balls in play, Sabathia didn’t fare as well on FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch values. He ranked 12th in total sinker value and 11th in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jon Lester, Cubs
Here’s another disparity between this method and FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch value rankings. Lester finished eighth in overall value and 12th in value per 100 pitches, as hitters batted an insane .432 AVG-.541 SLG (369 Unadjusted Contact Score) on grounders hit off of his sinker. Adjusted for context, hitters “should have” posted a much lower 116 mark on the many grounders hit off of the pitch. Overall, his 107 Unadjusted Contact Score on all BIP was well higher than his adjusted mark of 85.

Stylistically, Lester’s sinker featured average-range velocity (91.0 mph), the fifth-most horizontal movement (8.5 inches), and the fifth-least vertical movement (5.0 inches).

It was all about contact management with Lester’s sinker, as its 5.2% whiff rate was quite unremarkable. In addition to the high grounder rate, Lester was able to adequately muzzle authority on the fly balls he did allow (93 Adjusted Contact Score).

Grade B+ – Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Arrieta threw his sinker much harder (93.8 mph, second highest among MLB qualifiers) than the other high-grade recipients, with plenty of horizontal (8.4 inches, sixth most) and vertical (7.1 inches, fourth most) movement. Like all except Lester, he excelled at both contact management and bat-missing with the pitch.

He ran about the same grounder rate with the pitch as the two aforementioned hurlers. Unlike his teammate Lester, though, he almost never allowed a grounder hit off his sinker to leave the infield. Hitters batted .125 AVG-.135 SLG (27 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground off of the pitch, though that mark was adjusted upward to 87 based on exit-speed allowed. On all BIP, Arrieta’s 54 Unadjusted Contact Score was much lower than his adjusted 81 mark, allowing him to rank first in overall value and second in value per 100 pitches in FanGraphs’ outcome-based rankings.

Grade B+ – Brandon Finnegan, Reds
Finnegan’s raw bat-missing and contact-management numbers were almost identical to Sabathia’s but didn’t quite earn an “A” grade, as he didn’t exceed league-specific norms by as much as the Yankee lefty. Unlike the aforementioned hurlers, Finnegan didn’t induce nearly as many grounders with the pitch; his contact-management performance was driven by an utter suffocation of fly-ball contact (41 Adjusted Contact Score).

The only defining characteristic of Finnegan’s sinker was well above-average vertical movement (7.7 inches, third most among MLB qualifiers). Both its average velocity (91.7 mph) and horizontal movement (also 7.7 inches) sat squarely in the middle of the pack.

His FanGraphs pitch-specific outcome-based rankings (ninth overall, eighth per 100 pitches) weren’t as strong, as his Unadjusted Fly Ball (97) and overall (102) Contact Scores were quite a bit higher than his adjusted marks.

Grade B+ – Justin Verlander, Tigers
Now on to the sliders. As we will see, the most effective AL sliders happened to be thrown quite hard, with one notable exception (not this guy). Verlander’s average slider velocity of 87.9 mph was third highest among AL qualifiers, and it had way more vertical (5.0 inches, first) than horizontal (0.7 inches, fourth least) movement.

His 66 Adjusted Contact Score on the pitch was the best in the league, while his whiff rate sat in the average range. His Adjusted Contact Scores were strong across all BIP types (80, 77, and 74, for flies, liners and grounders, with a solid BIP Mix).

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch values also give Verlander’s slider high marks; he ranked third in overall pitch value, and second in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Ricky Nolasco, Angels
Here’s our outlier: the one strong AL slider performer who didn’t throw the pitch hard. His 81.1 mph average velocity ranked ninth to last among AL qualifiers, and neither his horizontal (2.2 inches, middle of the pack) nor vertical movement (1.2 inches, seventh least) stood out.

Like Verlander, Nolasco excelled in the contact-management department while also missing an average number of bats with his slider. Nolasco also muffled contact of all types with the pitch, posting Adjusted Contact Scores of 54, 85, and 61 on flies, liners, and grounders, respectively.

He didn’t fare as well in FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch-value metrics, ranking eighth in overall value and 12th in value per 100 pitches. His Unadjusted Contact Score of 104 wasn’t as impressive; Nolasco was very unlucky on both liners (119 Unadjusted vs. 85 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (124 vs. 61).

Grade B+ – Carlos Rodon, White Sox
Our next two pitchers were among the premier AL bat-missers with the slider last season. Rodon also managed contact well, and narrowly missed an “A” grade. His slider’s movement was unremarkable (both 2.9 inches of horizontal and 2.0 inches of vertical movement were in the average range), but its 86.7 mph average velocity ranked as the fifth hardest among AL qualifiers.

Rodon utterly stifled fly-ball (38 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounder (61) authority with his slider. FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch values see things the same way: he ranked fifth in overall slider value and third in value per 100 pitches among AL qualifiers. Here’s to seeing him back on an MLB mound soon.

Grade B+ – Michael Pineda, Yankees
Pineda is the only pitcher highlighted today whose pitch-specific contact-management performance merely ranked in the average range. He earned this grade by missing bats. Average contact management is actually pretty good for Pineda, who has allowed some thunder on all of his pitches over the years.

Unlike the other slider achievers, Pineda actually ran a very high grounder rate on his slider. This enabled him to post a decent 96 overall Adjusted Contact Score despite a subpar 124 mark on fly balls.

Stylistically, Pineda’s slider looks like it always has: plenty of velocity (85.5 mph, eighth hardest among AL qualifiers) and not much movement (1.1 inches horizontal, seventh least, 0.7 inches vertical, fourth least).

Pineda threw his slider a ton — 40.3% of the time. He ranked fourth in Fangraphs’ outcome-based pitch value rankings but only ninth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Corey Kluber, Indians
Like Verlander and Nolasco, Kluber combined stellar contact management with average-range bat-missing to attain this high grade. He limited contact of all types with the pitch, posting Adjusted Contact Scores of 76, 79, and 58 on flies, liners, and grounders, respectively.

Kluber threw his slider harder (88.9 mph average velocity) than any other AL qualifier, with much more vertical (3.8 inches, fourth most) than horizontal (2.8 inches, middle of the pack) movement.

He ranked second overall and first per 100 pitches in FanGraphs’ pitch-specific outcome-based value rankings. He fared even better in those metrics because of good fortune on both fly balls (38 Unadjusted Contact Score) and grounders (26). His overall slider Unadjusted Contact Score was a sparkling 53.

We hoped you liked reading Grading the Pitches: 2016 MLB Sinkers, AL Sliders by Tony Blengino!

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Something doesn’t compute. Mike Leake, who leads the NL in ERA, grades out as a B, C+, C+. How is he getting hitters out?


86% LOB (career 73%) and .244 BABIP (career .291).


These are 2016 pitch grades, a season in which Mike Leake put up a 4.69 ERA (albeit behind a 3.83 FIP/3.76 xFIP). His work this season isn’t reflected.