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The Cardinals Are Chasing Sinkers, and That Is Nothing New

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Some teams have moved away from sinkerballers, but the Cardinals are priortizing them in their search for pitching.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Some of the more analytically-minded teams, like the Red Sox, the Astros, the Rays, and the Indians, have moved away from sinkers. Each of the Red Sox, Astros, and Rays only had nine pitchers throw sinkers in the 2021 season. The Indians only had seven pitchers throw the pitch. Each of these teams had pitchers who threw a sinker as their primary pitch (Framber Valdez and Kendall Graveman for the Astros, Cal Quantrill for the Indians), but in general, these teams avoided sinkers. The Rays and the Astros are probabaly the two most analytically-inclined teams in the league, and they have a strong focus on four-seam fastballs instead of sinkers. This spread to the Red Sox when the team hired Chaim Bloom to be its Chief Baseball Officer after the 2019 season. In 2019, the Red Sox had 13 pitchers throw sinkers. In 2020 that number had dropped to ten, and only four threw more than 100 sinkers. In 2021, seven of nine pitchers who threw sinkers threw more than 100.

The St. Louis Cardinals have taken the opposite approach. In 2021, the team had 19 pitchers throw sinkers, while 16 threw more than 100. This was a significant increase from the past two seasons as the Cardinals had 11 pitchers throw the pitch in 2019 and just eight in 2020. This was partially due to injuries to pitchers, but the Cardinals’ defense has also had a significant effect.

Many of the Cardinals’ recent pitching acquisitions have had sinkers in their arsenal. Most recently, Steven Matz is an example of this, but T.J. McFarland, Luis Garcia, Jon Lester, and Wade LeBlanc were also acquired during the season.

Prior to these moves, the Cardinals had issues with walks. That problem, combined with elite defense, made the Cardinals pursue a different strategy. Instead of pursuing a strikeout oriented pitching staff, the front office wanted players who could limit walks. Derrick Goold reported earlier in the offseason that the Cardinals are looking for pitchers who can take advantage of the team’s defense and the ballpark. This certainly lends itself to a focus on pitchers who pitch to contact.

A sinker is certainly a pitch to contact kind of a pitch. When compared with four-seamers, sinkers typically have a significantly lower whiff rate. That is a reason why the more analytically-minded teams focus more on four-seamers than sinkers, but the Cardinals clearly have different priorities. The starting rotation now has five pitchers who throw sinkers, though Flaherty does not throw many. Sinkers form over 20% of Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas’ arsenals, and they form over 40% of Dakota Hudson and Steven Matz’s arsenals. Even in the bullpen, Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, T.J. McFarland, Luis Garcia (if he gets re-signed), throw plenty of sinkers.

The Cardinals rumored interest in Kevin Gausman would buck this trend. Gausman does not throw a sinker, he strikes out around 30% of the hitters that he faces, and he has a below average ground ball rate. Gausman has kept a low walk rate, though, and that is certainly appealing to the Cardinals.

If the Cardinals do sign Gausman, it may be a sign that they are willing to deviate from their focus on sinker and contact-oriented pitchers, especially at the top of the rotation.

It is also important to note that the team has not just signed sinkerballers, but they have also developed them. Junior Fernandez, Jake Woodford, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, and Dakota Hudson have all been developed by the Cardinals and debuted in the last few years.

Not all pitchers are throwing sinkers though as Flaherty has dramatically decreased his sinker usage since making his debut. The right-hander dropped his sinker usage from 25% in a short 2017 debut to 15.9% the following year to just 6.3% in 2021. Thus, it does not seem that the Cardinals are solely focused on sinkers. Rather, it appears that they have taken a pragmatic approach to maximizing their defense, though the team does generally like pitchers with sinkers.

As a team that has been strong at pitching and defense for a while, this is a sensible strategy. Unlike teams like the Rays, Astros, and Red Sox, the Cardinals are willing to work with pitchers who throw sinkers and help them develop the pitch instead of replacing it with a four-seamer. This is an opposite approach to that taken by the trendy teams in the league. It will certainly be interesting to compare the results in the upcoming season.

A large part of having an organization that is aligned from top to bottom is drafting and signing players that the coaching staff can develop. So, if the front office feels that the team does a good job of developing pitchers who pound the bottom of the zone with sinkers, then that is what the team should draft. This is why the Cardinals often draft players with the “pitchability” label, and it is why the team is good at getting value from later round picks. The team can clearly develop players without high octane stuff, who instead stay in the zone, get ground balls, and limit walks. The Pirates, on the other hand, were unable to maximize the talents of Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer, while the Astros and the Rays, respectively, were able to do so, which is why organizational alignment is important.

This emphasis on pitchers who can take advantage of the team’s defense in not new. The team finished in the top half of the league in strikeouts per nine innings just three times since 2001, most recently finishing 12th in 2017. Conversely, the team was in the top half in walks per nine innings every year from 2001 through 2017 (while being top five or ten in many of those years), excepting two years when the team finished 15th. From 2018 through 2021, the team has gotten away from its identity as a contact-oriented pitching staff that limits walks.

Though the emphasis on sinkers, pitching to contact, and limiting walks has been been quite clear this year, it is not much different from the team’s strategy throughout the 21st century. The team generally does not target pitchers with high strikeout rates as their calling card and because the team is so adept at building from within, pitchers usually grade higher in pitchability than in pure stuff. Signing Gausman would give the team a top of the rotation starter who can generate plenty of whiffs, but the focus on contact-oriented pitchers with sinkers is nothing new, even if it may be more extreme this year.