This is Alex Stumpf’s third piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
Jared Hughes first realized his sinker might be something special in little league. He was admittedly goofy, uncoordinated and a head taller than anyone else on his team, but he pitched. One day when throwing sinkers during a bullpen session with his dad, he was given very simple advice that he would ride throughout his playing career.
“He said ‘keep throwing that. That’s the one right there that will make you a major leaguer,’” Hughes said.
The sinker did make Hughes a major leaguer. Now 6’7”, more coordinated but still goofy, few have thrown sinkers as often as he has. In 2016, only Brandon Kintzler threw as many as he did and have it represent as high of a percentage of his pitch selection. It has allowed him to pursue his true baseball love: groundballs. Armed with that pitch, he has posted the 12th best grounder rate out of all relievers since his debut in 2011.
Hughes is passionate about groundballs. He says it’s a way of life for him, delivered in a way that is half joke and two-thirds heartfelt sincerity. He talks about groundballs the same way a high school English teacher would “Romeo and Juliet.” He is not a strikeout pitcher. He is not going to use the four quadrants as effectively as others. What he does is punish batters for going below the strikezone and getting groundballs with his sinker.
It’s Hughes’ way of life. It’s also a pitch that is being thrown less and less.
Teams are valuing velocity more and more, especially in the bullpen, and a sinker does not, cannot and will not have the same giddy up as a four-seamer. Home runs are more prevalent, and in a world where uppercut swings has put the league at the cusp of a flyball revolution, the lower part of the zone is starting to become more dangerous to navigate through. Talk of raising the strikezone only amplifies those fears.
Hughes has noticed the change around the league. The Pirates — the team that drafted him, raised him through the farm system and made him a staple in their bullpen — cut him loose in late March after an off year and an unimpressive spring. His new team, the Brewers, have three sinkerballers in the bullpen, joined by Jhan Marinez and Rob Scahill.
According to Baseball Savant, in 2008, pitchers threw 101,091 sinkers. 900 games into 2017, there were 8,554 pitches classified as sinkers. If sinkers were being thrown at the same rate now as they were in 2008, there would have been over 10,000 more.
Hughes says his sinkers are being misclassified as four seamers, and any time there’s a big shift in pitch-type data, you have to be aware that it might be a change in classification algorithm more than a change in pitch-type usage. But this also doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; it’s possible that fewer sinkers are being classified as such, but also that the pitch is also falling out of favor in the big leagues.
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Despite the decrease in sinkers, grounders are still being induced at a fairly consistent pace, never deviating from its 43.9-45.3% clip in 10 years. The top six league leaders in groundball percentage have not thrown a sinker this year. Kyle Freeland, Clayton Richard and Dallas Keuchel have two-seamers. Marcus Stroman, Robert Gsellman and Lance McCullers do not, relying on anything from cutters to knuckle-curves to get the job done.
And if there is anything being valued more than worm-killers now, it’s strikeouts, which is a sinker’s achilles heel. Less than one half of one percent of sinkers have been a whiff this year, and since a good sinker doesn’t sniff the zone, it’s no surprise that only one in 77 are looked at for a strike. It is no coincidence that the league’s increase in strikeouts is coinciding with the fall of the pitch that is designed to be put in play.
Even though the trend points to the sinker being phased out, there are exceptions to the rule. Some of the best pitchers in the game right now have it in their arsenal. Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Hendricks all finished in the top 10 in the NL Cy Young voting in 2016 and are throwing it for over 42% of their pitches this year. If the two-seamer is considered as well, it brings in even more prestigious names like Stroman, Keuchel and Zach Britton.
It’s why Hughes is confident that the pitch he threw to his dad on a little league field and in front of sellout crowds is not going anywhere. He stands by a belief that has been ingrained in him that the best way to get a grounder is late downward movement, and it will always stay in style. If used correctly and executed well, it’s as deadly as it has ever been, even if it is not as utilized.
“I don’t think the sinker’s gone,” Hughes said. “I think teams might be trying to find a way to focus on velocity, but in my opinion, the sinker is the best pitch in baseball.”