Kevin Ginkel Whips His Hair Back and Forth

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

One of the nice things about the playoffs is that there’s often just one game happening at a time. Don’t get me wrong. I love a summer day with a full slate of 15 games, but you are where your attention is, and there’s too much baseball happening in any one day for us to be present for all of it. When the whole of the baseball world gets compressed down to one high-stakes game, you catch little things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

During the NLCS, I noticed a little thing about Kevin Ginkel. It was about how he holds runners on second base, and man, does he hold runners on second base. Here’s the pitch that caught my attention:

This occurred during a fairly high-leverage moment. It’s the eighth inning of Game 4 of the NLCS. The Phillies are up two runs with Nick Castellanos at the plate. That potential insurance run on second base feels huge in the moment. (And it will turn out to be huge. In the bottom of the inning, the Diamondbacks will score three runs and take the lead. If Alec Bohm comes around to score here, this game likely ends up in extra innings.) In the midst of all this drama, at approximately the speed of light, Ginkel cranks his head all the way around like an owl. Here’s a close-up:

It’s so quick! And then he just throws a pitch like nothing happened! Look at his hair, flying around so wild and free. Ginkel is throwing high-leverage innings in the playoffs, but he’s also starring in his own shampoo commercial. When I try to visualize the journey his hair takes, what comes to mind is one of those Sarah Langs win probability graphs. It’s quiet at first, and then all hell breaks loose:

Wheee indeed.

My interest was piqued. I started watching all the pitches Ginkel threw when he had a runner on second base or runners on first and second, any situation where his attention would be focused on the runner on second.

It turns out that this Exorcist-adjacent head turn was not an anomaly. Ginkel pays extremely close attention to the runner at second base. When there are runners on base, the pitch clock stretches to 20 seconds, and Ginkel spends approximately 19 of them just staring down the runner on second. Not only that, but he uses every trick in the book in order to keep the runner off balance. He constantly mixes up his timing. Sometimes he’ll start his delivery while he’s still looking at the runner, but other times he’ll hold the ball forever and then pitch without looking at the runner at all. These two pitches are from the same plate appearance in the Wild Card Series against the Brewers:

That alone would make Ginkel hard to time up, but he mixes in even more moves. He’ll quick pitch. He’ll slow pitch. He’ll chase the runner back to the bag with an inside move. He’ll take two long looks at the runner, then the next time, he’ll seem like he’s going to do the exact same thing, but instead, when he turns back to the plate, he’ll hold the ball for long enough that it feels like he’s going to turn back to the runner:

And of course, in addition to all of those moves and variations of them, he’ll do the move that inspired this line of investigation in the first place: the Kevin Ginkel Snakes Alive Super Swivel (trademark pending):

As fun as this is, it raises an important question: Does the Super Swivel and its myriad counterparts actually work?

If Ginkel’s intent is to hold the runner at second close enough that they can’t score on a single, it’s not working. He allowed two singles in this situation during the regular season, and both times the runner on second scored without even drawing a throw. When Ginkel allowed a single to Mark Canha during the Wild Card Series, Christian Yelich didn’t score from second, but only because he had to wait and make sure the ball wasn’t caught.

If Ginkel is doing this to make sure that runners aren’t able to steal third, then his success rate is a little harder to judge. He allowed just one steal of third all season, and because the third baseman didn’t bother to cover the bag on the play, it’s impossible to know whether the runner would have been safe or out had there been a throw.

There’s one other factor at play, and it’s the biggest one. Ginkel hasn’t pitched quite as well with a runner on second (or runners on first and second). It could just be noise. Pitchers tends to perform worse with runners in scoring position, and in Ginkel’s case, we’re only talking about a sample of 40 plate appearances and 168 pitches. His regular season strand rate was just a hair below league average, and it’s a nice round 100% in the playoffs. Still, the changes are pretty extreme. When no one is on base, Ginkel hits the strike zone 45.6% of the time, well below the big league average of 49.1%. When there’s a runner on second (or runners on first and second), that number drops to 38%, a much, much bigger drop from the major league average of 47.8%. In fact, there were 290 pitchers who threw at least 150 pitches in that situation this season, and Ginkel’s 38% in-zone rate ranks 285th. Ginkel’s in-zone rate falls 7.6 percentage points, while the average pitcher’s falls 1.3 points.

It’s hard to know how much of the increase in pitches outside the zone is due to a lack of command and how much is by design. For the most part, Ginkel offsets the lower in-zone rate by earning more swinging strikes. His chase rate improves from 30.9% to 37.6%, and his whiff rate improves from 21.1% to 31.0%. Maybe all of this subterfuge is affecting the batter, or maybe Ginkel is just trying to keep the ball out of the strike zone, and therefore out of play. After all, with a runner on second or runners on first and second, a walk is much less harmful than a single.

Still, the end result is that Ginkel is pitching from behind more often. Overall, 25.7% of Ginkel’s pitches come when he’s behind in the count, a bit better than the big league average of 26.5%. But when there’s a runner on second to worry about, Ginkel is at 28.8%, a bit worse than the league average of 28.1%. And of course, falling behind leads to worse outcomes:

Kevin Ginkel’s Base State Splits
Situation wOBA xwOBA BB% K% EV RV/100 Pitches
Overall .246 .275 9.1 28.9 87.4 1.00
Second/First & Second .279 .282 11.4 27.5 88.3 0.14
Difference +33 +7 +2.3 -1.4 +0.9 -0.86
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

With runners to worry about, his walk rate rises and his strikeout rate falls. His exit velocity goes up a tick, and his run value per 100 pitches plummets. In every column of the table above, Ginkel’s performance drop-off was bigger than the major league average drop-off. Here’s a breakdown of the two differentials:

Kevin Ginkel’s Differentials vs. MLB’s
Situation wOBA xwOBA BB% K% EV RV/100 Pitches
Kevin Ginkel +33 +7 +2.3 -1.4 +0.9 -0.86
MLB Average +2 +3 +1.2 -0.4 -1 0.00
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Again, we’re talking about a tiny sample, but if I worked for the Diamondbacks, I might tell Ginkel that he doesn’t need to worry so much about holding the runner on second. It’s unclear whether his moves are keeping runners from stealing third, but they definitely aren’t keeping them from scoring on a single. Even if they were, it wouldn’t be worth risking an overall drop in performance. Basically, I’d tell Ginkel what every coach tells their young pitchers: focus on the person at the plate.

But here’s the thing: I don’t work for the Diamondbacks. And while I don’t wish for Kevin Ginkel to fail, I do hope that he continues to whip his hair back and forth, because it brings me joy. Maybe he can relax his policy of constant vigilance just a little bit, but I hope he still takes a quick peek at the runner every once in a while.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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5 months ago

Ginkel’s extension adds to their already-impressive velocity. They should be viewed as among the NL’s elite relievers.

5 months ago
Reply to  offthewall

“Extensions”? Are you implying that Ginkel uses performance enhancing wigs?

5 months ago
Reply to  Mark

I think their hair is natural… and glorious.

5 months ago
Reply to  Mark

Arm extension. 88th percentile per Baseball Savant.
But maybe performance enhancing wigs are in play…