How Good Is Joe Kelly's Sinker?

ST. LOUIS, MO - JUNE 16: Starter Joe Kelly #58 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Kansas City Royals at Busch Stadium on June 16, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Part of living in the minor-league town is having the opportunity to watch Future Redbirds in-person before they graduate to the big leagues. From head shots, stat pages on websites, and Daily Farm Reports on Future Redbirds, one can form an idea of a player and his skill set. Seeing them in person gives one a chance to develop a more well-rounded idea of the player, even if it is only for a few games. In the case of pitchers, a game or two each season for the visiting Redbirds starters is usually all one gets. In April, when the Redbirds visited, I was fortunate enough to finally see Joe Kelly.

Going into the game, I knew that Kelly was drafted as a college reliever, the Cardinals converted him to starting, he had a power sinker, and doubts persisted that he would be able to stick as a starter due to limited secondary offerings. I had also read the reports of his super-powerful sinker, but I wanted to see this vaunted grounder-inducing pitch for myself. I went to the game with fourstick and we were not disappointed.

It was an overcast day in April and pretty chilly; nonetheless, Kelly was consistently firing his fastball in the 92-94 MPH range and touching as high as 96 MPH. From our vantage point on the first-base line, it was difficult to really assess much of the movement on his pitches. The results, however, were solid enough. Kelly scattered seven hits in six innings, issued only one walk, struck out three, and induced quite a few grounders. The results that day quickly faded from memory, however, supplanted by Kelly's power sinker.

It was Kelly's sinker that made me excited for his first big-league start, even if the circumstances which gave rise to it could not be much worse. Pitching for St. Louis on television would give us a chance to view his pitches from the center field camera and give us Pitch F/X data on them that would be readily accessible on Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers. With his second major league start adding to this data, I thought it would be fun to compare Kelly's sinker to those of the other Cardinals starters and the most preeminent ground-balling pitchers in Major League Baseball to see just how good a sinker Kelly throws.

Since we are all very familiar with Cardinals staff, I wanted to compare Kelly to those pitchers. Having seen them throw dozens upon dozens of sinkerballs last season, the measurements of their movement will give us some context for Kelly's pitch of choice. For this exercise, I decided to use 2011 Pitch F/X information so that we had a full season's worth of data. For Adam Wainwright, for whose sinker I used 2010 data because Wainwright didn't throw a pitch in the 2011 season. Here is a look at what Brooks Baseball classified as sinkers for the Cardinals' 2011 starters and for Kelly in his first start (since his Brooks Baseball player page had not been updated to include data from Saturday).

Pitcher

Frequency

MPH

H. Mvt.

V. Mvt.

H. Rel.

V. Rel.

Spin Θ

RPM

Kelly

70%

93.54

-12.25

-21.26

-2.66

5.10

251

1,920

Westbrook

64%

90.73

-12.63

-23.97

-1.58

5.87

254

1,831

Garcia

35%

90.43

8.51

-19.27

-0.39

6.41

139

1,671

Carpenter

34%

92.73

-12.36

-20.15

-1.69

6.09

244

1,976

Wainwright

45%

91.81

-11.17

-15.37

-1.29

6.49

225

2,241

Lohse

51%

90.06

-10.05

-16.47

-1.03

6.30

222

2,075

Given the good reviews Kelly's sinker has received throughout the minors, it's not that surprising that its movement is on par with or better than most of his fellow Cardinals. In his first start, the pitch had vertical movement that fell between Westbrook and Carpenter. The horizontal movement was not quite as good as Westbrook or Carpenter, but was quite close.

In addition to how Kelly's sinker compares to his Cardinals peers, I also wanted to see just how it compares to the top ground-ball pitchers (non-Westbrook division) in baseball. For this, I took those pitchers with the top ten groundball percentages in the 2011 season and compared their sinkers to Kelly's.

Pitcher

Frequency

MPH

H. Mvt.

V. Mvt.

H. Rel.

V. Rel.

Spin Θ

RPM

Kelly

70%

93.54

-12.25

-21.26

-2.66

5.10

251

1,920

Masterson

43%

92.70

-12.27

-27.79

-2.28

4.82

276

1,809

Lowe

48%

88.63

-12.98

-28.05

-2.62

5.69

265

1,829

Hudson

49%

91.14

-11.62

-23.82

-1.06

5.27

254

1,670

Morton

61%

91.94

-12.39

-25.32

-2.28

6.06

262

1,788

Chacin

23%

90.90

-6.51

-20.47

-1.26

6.28

224

1,328

Cahill

51%

89.53

-12.88

-25.98

-1.94

6.03

259

1,835

Carmona

58%

93.24

-12.73

-21.29

-0.69

5.86

249

1,906

Romero

22%

92.31

9.97

-22.60

2.85

6.06

116

1,665

As you can see, Kelly's sinker is amongst Justin Masterson and Ricky Romero as the fastest in terms of average MPH. While the vertical movement on Kelly's sinker is very good, he doesn't get quite as much "sink" on average as Jake Westbrook, Charlie Morton, Trevor Cahill, Derek Lowe, or Justin Masterson. Even so, Kelly's sinker has enough movement to be listed in the company of the game's top ground-ball inducers.

There are many ways to induce grounders. Pitchers like Chacin, Romero, and Garcia use their sinker as part of a diverse repertoire to keep hitters off-balance while veterans such as Westbrook and Morton use the sinker a majority of the time in order to get opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground, complementing it with off-speed offerings. This is a strategy that Lowe has employed in 2012 as well. As Ben Lindbergh writes in a great read over at Baseball Prospectus, throwing his sinker two-thirds of the time has caused his strikeout rate to plummet to Pud Galvin 1862 levels. Given the fact that Kelly's secondary offerings lag behind his sinker in effectiveness, the Westbrook/Morton approach seems the one Kelly must take in order to experience success at the big-league level.

In his first start, Kelly was serviceable; he was on a short leash and Matheny yanked him with a chance to notch a pitching "win." On Saturday, Kelly used 81 pitches to get through 4.1 innings before being pulled out of a sticky situation the result of a fielding error, groundball single, and hit batsman. Whether the Cardinals trade for a starter at the trade deadline will likely depend more on Chris Carpenter's health than Kelly's effectiveness, but we should not dismiss Kelly's call-up as anything less than a tryout for the 2013 rotation.

Lance Lynn made his big-league debut in the rotation last year with two starts not unlike Kelly's. Lynn's combined line after his first two starts was 10.1 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, and 8 SO. Kelly's line through two starts is 9.1 IP, 14 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO. This is not to say that Kelly is the next Lynn. He likely is not; Kelly lacks secondary offerings the caliber of Lynn's. That being said, with Kelly's sinker, he could be a Westbrook-type fifth starter in 2013 at a fraction of the veteran's cost.

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