Logan Webb, As Advertised

Logan Webb
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Things haven’t quite gone to plan in San Francisco this year. That’s not to say that the Giants have been bad, or even that they’ve been disappointing exactly. At 39–33, they’re squarely in the playoff hunt, and if you go by our odds, they’re more likely to make the postseason today than they were before the season. But after a 107-win 2021, “in the playoff hunt” doesn’t sound nearly as enticing. The same is true for their individual performers. It’s hard to be impressed by a nice season when seemingly everyone on the team had a career year last year.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Logan Webb has been pretty darn good so far this year. In 15 starts, he’s compiled a 3.04 ERA, which nearly matches his 3.03 FIP. That’s roughly a match for his breakout 2021 season, which sounds great, but the resounding roar around the Giants’ unstoppable player development engine over the past two years makes Webb’s success feel almost pedestrian.

It’s not, though. Pitchers with ERAs near 3 don’t grow on trees. Webb is one of the best 30 starters in baseball; that should speak for itself. Since the start of 2021, he’s 12th among pitchers in WAR, 18th in ERA, and fifth in FIP. He’s 32nd in K-BB%, which doesn’t sound quite as impressive until you consider the fact that he gets so many grounders. No starter has allowed fewer home runs per inning, and only human cheat code Framber Valdez has a higher groundball rate.

That’s the easiest way to think of Webb: one of the premier sinker-ballers in all of baseball. He may not have Valdez’s ludicrous grounder numbers, but he makes up for it with top-notch command; over that same span, he’s 27th among starters with a 6% walk rate, while Valdez walks 9.6% of the batters he faces. He’s also a better strikeout pitcher, with a 24.7% mark that’s higher than league average. That’s Webb: a great sinker-based pitcher from the previous generation, only with the strikeout and walk numbers from power pitchers of that era.

It’s hard to accomplish that double. Valdez is a great example of why. He has one of the best bat-missing curveballs in baseball, full stop. He’s in the top 10 for swinging-strike rate and top 15 for whiff-per-swing rate, and he throws it so often that he’s generated the third-most whiffs on curveballs in the entire major leagues this year. Despite that, he has a below-average strikeout rate. So that’s the bar to clear: if you want to throw a sinker and strike out a ton of batters, you essentially have to be a magical being.

Why? Sinkers just don’t miss bats. League-wide, batters have come up empty on 15.3% of their swings on sinkers this year. Four-seamers are at 21.5%, cutters at 24.3%. When your primary pitch doesn’t miss many bats, it’s just plain harder to convert two-strike counts into strikeouts. But while Webb isn’t immune to this effect, he counteracts it better than most other pitchers who use sinking fastballs as their primary pitch.

How does he do it? He has a few tricks up his sleeve. His sinker is just better at generating strikes. By virtue of his drop-and-drive delivery, the pitch has a shallow vertical approach angle. I coined this a “flat sinker” in the offseason, and while the name isn’t great, the effect seems to be real.

First, if you miss high in the zone, you’re more likely to get bailed out by a batter swinging under your pitch. High-in-the-zone pitches with shallow VAAs are just easier to swing under. I’m not 100% sold on this effect in sinkers; sure, it’s probably better to miss high in the zone if you have a shallow approach angle, but it’s still not good to miss high in the zone with a sinker in the first place. Second, and more importantly, batters swing less frequently at shallow-angled pitches at the bottom of the strike zone. The path of the ball, with or without sink, is just deceptive enough so that hitters think the pitch will miss and end up looking foolish.

Guess what? Webb is second in baseball in called strike rate on sinkers this year. Opposing batters take a whopping 30.6% of his sinkers for strikes. Only Aaron Nola does better, and it won’t shock you to learn that Nola also releases the ball low. That’s far from the only factor that gets hitters to take fastballs for strikes, but it’s a major piece of the puzzle.

One of the biggest problems with relying on a sinker is that you’ll inevitably end up subject to the vagaries of balls in play. It’s just mathematical; batters don’t chase many fastballs, so it’s tough to get a swing and a miss on a bad one. Add to that the fact that hitters mostly make contact when they swing at sinkers, and that means that your most common outcomes are balls in play.

That’s not the worst problem in the world to have — plenty of those balls in play will be on the ground — but it’s still a problem. Major league hitters badly want to swing at fastballs, and they increasingly do damage when they connect. Strikeouts are the hard currency of pitching these days, and you can’t strike someone out when they put the ball in play.

To get a strikeout, you need strikes, and Webb’s sinker is downright elite at that. Let’s leave foul balls aside; a foul ball is just a batted ball that doesn’t land in play, and we’re specifically looking for strikes with no possibility of any base hits whatsoever. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Webb is first in baseball when it comes to CSW% with his sinker. That’s called plus swinging strikes; the higher the better, obviously.

What might surprise you more is that Webb is first among all starters in CSW% on all fastballs, period. CSW% is actually fairly even between four-seamers and sinkers; sinkers generate extra called strikes to make up for the lack of whiffs. The top five pitchers on this list should give you an idea that it’s something valuable to track:

Highest CSW% on Fastballs, 2022
Pitcher CSW%
Logan Webb 36.0%
Lucas Giolito 35.8%
Zack Wheeler 35.5%
Gerrit Cole 35.5%
Corbin Burnes 34.4%

Okay, so Webb’s fastball is great at generating strikes. But there’s another problem. As an added headwind to striking batters out with sinkers, having more pitches end with balls in play makes any strike you do get less meaningful. Going to two strikes against Edwin Diaz usually ends with a sad trudge back to the dugout while Mr. Met pantomimes playing a trumpet. Getting to two strikes against someone who pitches to contact? It’s a much sunnier experience for the hitter.

With two strikes, batters take fewer pitches, so overall CSW% isn’t quite so useful of a metric. To give you an idea of how much Webb falls off, he’s 51st in CSW% with two strikes. Giolito, Wheeler, Cole, and Burnes, who all rely on four-seamers or cutters, are all in the top 10. To be a strikeout pitcher while featuring a sinker, it isn’t enough to generate a boatload of called strikes; you still need something to put opposing hitters away.

For Webb, that something is a combination of two pitches. He throws his slider and changeup each 40% of the time with two strikes — more changeups to lefties and more sliders to righties, but still in a fairly balanced mixture. He also mixes in a four-seam fastball high in the zone; from his release point, that’s a nice way to steal a few extra swinging strikes.

Those pitches aren’t swinging-strike standouts, exactly. His changeup has a lot in common with his sinker; it gets a ton of drop but less horizontal movement than average. That’s an extremely valuable trait when opponents put the ball in play — it generates a pile of grounders, naturally — but it’s never going to be the best bat-misser in the game. His slider gets the most whiffs of any of his pitches, but largely against righties. They’re both good pitches, but neither is the kind you’d expect in the arsenal of a dominant strikeout pitcher, at least without a fastball doing the heavy lifting.

The end result of all of this — two decent putaway pitches, plus a fastball that helps him get to two strikes with great frequency — is that Webb ends up with an above-average strikeout rate despite a pitch mix that sounds like it should result in the opposite. You don’t have to be particularly efficient at putting hitters away if you give yourself plenty of bites at the apple, which is just what Webb’s sinker does. He knows that; he throws it more than half the time to start a plate appearance, and far less frequently thereafter.

Another benefit: batters have to be more defensive when they’re down in the count, which means worse production on contact. That’s just a fact of life; if you’re trying to cover the whole plate to keep a pitcher from throwing something in the zone for strike three, your swings will be worse, and you’ll make contact with a fair number of breaking balls and offspeed pitches that start in the zone and finish outside of it. When batters put the ball in play while ahead in the count, they’ve compiled a .385 wOBA this year. When they’re down in the count, that number falls to .335.

That natural batter progression — wait for your pitch early, swing more often with two strikes — plays right into Webb’s hands. The whole shallow-angle thing? In plain English, it makes his in-zone pitches look like they’re worth passing over. When batters are looking for their pitch (early in the count, in other words), that’s an easy type of pitch to take. But behind in the count, when they’re swinging first and asking questions later, it’s all bendy stuff and high fastballs. If you’re going to throw a sinker and succeed in the majors, you should do it the way Webb does.

It helps, obviously, to have good velocity, good movement, and a release point that complements your pitches, three boxes Webb checks. It also pays to have plus command. It’s easier to get called strikes if you’re throwing the ball in the strike zone, naturally enough. No sinker-first pitcher has a higher zone rate than Webb’s 64.5%; Tarik Skubal checks in at 64.8%, but in roughly half the pitches.

In the interest of having this all fit into one article, I won’t delve further into Webb’s secondary pitches, but I think they’re a nice complement to his approach. They work well in contrast to his sinker; the changeup starts off on a similar spin axis but drops more, and the slider roughly mirrors that axis, which creates a tough look for hitters. But while those pitches are excellent complements, the whole thing works because of his sinker. He gets called strikes with it. He gets grounders with it. If he falls behind in the count, it’s an easy way to get back into the plate appearance. He might throw each pitch a third of the time, but the whole package depends on his ability to build his repertoire off of his sinker.

It’s easy to gloss over Webb’s production in the current era of high strikeouts and high-octane starters. Called strikes don’t make for fun GIFs; neither do defensive swings that create grounders. But he’s quietly chugging along as one of the best pitchers in the game, and more than that, building a resume as one of the great sinker pitchers of this generation.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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chewbaccamember
1 month ago

Great stuff, a novel look at a pitcher who is better than he looks and the explanation…