Semantics Aside, Rays Prospect Cole Wilcox Has a New Sinker

Cole Wilcox started to say “two-seamer” when bringing up the fastball he threw at the University of Georgia. The 21-year-old Tampa Bay Rays prospect then reversed course and called it a sinker, which it really wasn’t. Featuring mostly arm-side run, the high-velocity offering got only a modicum of depth. Given the grip, that kind of came with the territory. More on that in a moment.

Wilcox was selected in the third round of the 2020 draft by San Diego, who subsequently shipped the right-hander to the Rays as part of the Blake Snell deal. Seen as a potential first-rounder last summer — signability questions caused the sophomore-eligible draftee to drop — Wilcox spent time at the Padres alternate site prior to changing organizations in December. It was there that he restructured an arsenal that now comprises a two-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and a work-in-progress four-seamer.

Which brings us to the heater he’d featured in the SEC. Regardless of how one might define it, it’s now part of his past.

“It used to be a four-seam sinker,” explained Wilcox, who is beginning the current campaign with the Low-A Charleston River Dogs. “Really, the only thing good about it was that it was hard. That’s what I threw in college, but since I’ve been in pro ball, I’ve switched to a two-seam. It gets a lot more movement, a lot more depth.”

I asked the erstwhile Bulldog if he could elaborate on having thrown a four-seam sinker.

“I guess it was my arm slot,” reasoned Wilcox, who was clocked as high as 100 mph as a collegian, and typically sits 94-96. “That’s just naturally how it was. It was a decent pitch, it just wasn’t great. I was able to locate it, and it was hard, so it was effective in college. But changing to a two-seam — I did that at the alternate site — really made a huge difference. It was kind of hard to locate at first, because it had so much more movement, but once I honed that in I was able to work on my other stuff and try to incorporate a four-seam.”

That would be a four-seam that acts like an actual four-seam, as opposed to the oddball variant he once employed. Which inspires a question: How does one go about turning a four-seam sinker into a four-seamer that rides?

“It’s a big adjustment,” said Wilcox, who volunteered that up in the zone is an area of the plate he’s rarely explored. “Obviously there’s a grip change in there, but for me it’s mostly just being able to stay through it longer — keeping my shoulders square to the plate and staying behind it, thinking about both fingers coming off at the same time to get that true backspin. Then it can just play up in the zone, because it’s already pretty hard.”

Further elaboration was in order. How does one change the grip on a four-seamer?

“It’s actually the same grip I threw in college; it’s just how I release it,” Wilcox clarified. “It’s not a change of the arm, it’s… if my hands are about at two o’clock on a two-seam, I’m trying to get the four-seam at one o’clock. For me to do that, it’s just staying square, with everything being on top.”

Prior to talking to Wilcox, I checked in with his manager. Blake Butera shared how the Rays really liked the righty as an amateur, and are thus excited to have acquired him in the multi-player Snell deal. Describing Wilcox as “a big, strong athletic kid with a live arm,” he went on to shower praise on one of his secondaries.

“It’s a hard slider, and it’s electric,” said Butera. “There will be some he throws where you’re like, ‘Was that a fastball that he cut?’ because it will be in the low 90s and acts like a cutter. But then you’ll see some with that good shape, with that good depth to it.” Asked if he considers it the youngster’s best pitch, the 28-year-old skipper said that he does.

The up-and-coming hurler doesn’t necessarily agree with his manager.

“Lately my slider has been my best put-away pitch — it’s been really good — but I still think of my sinker as my best pitch,” Wilcox told me. “It’s kind of the bread-and-butter. It’s what I’m going to go to when I’m in a bind.”

Wilcox’s wording was once again a matter of descriptive subjectivity. Could his sinker “still” be his best pitch, given that it’s basically a new pitch? No longer gripped across the seams, it now has depth to go along with the high-octane run his arm slot naturally creates. For all intents and purposes, it’s not the same animal.

Semantics aside, Wilcox’s new-old sinker is difficult for hitters to square up, and that’s what matters most. The pitch will be on display when Wilcox — No. 21 on our Tampa Bay Rays Top Prospects list — takes the mound for his professional debut this afternoon.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 years ago

Great read!!