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Steven Matz and High Sinkers

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Matz gets fewer groundballs than many sinkerballers because he keeps his sinker at the top of the zone. This is an uncommon strategy, but it is one that Matz may be suited for.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Matz is weird. He may seem like the average mid-to-back-end sinkerballer, but he fulfills that role in a way that is much different than most sinkerballers. Matz targets the upper portion of the zone with his sinkers. This is a bit counter-intuitive since the sinker is a pitch that typically generates an above average amount of groundballs. In order to get groundballs most pitchers throw sinkers in the bottom of the zone.

For instance, he is the locations of each sinker that Dakota Hudson threw in 2019 (his last full season).

Hudson did throw a large amount of pitches off the plate and high or inside to right handers, but for the most part he stayed down in the zone with the pitch.

Marcus Stroman had the same idea in the past season.

Both of these pitchers got plenty of groundballs, with many coming from low sinkers. Steven Matz is different, though. Here are the locations of his sinkers in 2021.

Matz clearly targeted the upper regions of the strike zone when he threw his sinker. This is one of the reasons why Matz only had a slightly above average groundball rate of 45.5%. For comparison, Stroman had a groundball rate of 50.8%, while he posted rates above 60% from 2015-2018. Dakota Hudson had a 56.9% groundball rate in 2019.

To demonstrate this point, here is the chart showing Matz’s average launch angles by zone region in 2021.

Average launch angle can be a bit misleading, because a launch angle of 50 degrees and a launch angle of -10 degrees average out to 20 degrees. An average launch angle of 20 degrees for a hitter would look great, except for the fact that he got there by hitting a pop-up and a groundball. Still, the point remains that Matz gets more groundballs when he throws his sinker to the bottom portion of the zone. Of all the batted balls surrendered by Matz with a launch angle below zero, 75% of them were in the bottom two thirds of the zone. Since Matz threw a lot of high sinkers, this emphasizes how low his groundball rate was at the top of the zone.

There is a benefit to high sinkers, though. Matz has been able to strike out more hitters than the average sinkerballer. Matz’s 22.3% strikeout rate was slighter higher than Stroman’s 21.6% strikeout rate this season, and it was much higher than Dakota Hudson’s 18.0% strikeout rate in 2019. Additionally, Matz’s sinker whiff rate is a solidly above average 18.7%.

A large percentage of those whiffs come at the top of the zone.

It seems that Matz is willing to trade groundballs for whiffs. It’s a weird trade with a contact-oriented pitch, but it has worked for Matz, although since it has been a career-long strategy, we don’t know if Matz would be better if he kept his sinker down.

When he throws his sinker at the top of the zone, it does not get hit as hard and he gets more whiffs, but when he throws it at the bottom of the zone, it gets more groundballs. Since Matz has thrown high sinkers for his entire career, he is unlikely to change in 2022. Even so, the Cardinals might want him to throw more low sinkers in an effort to get more groundballs and use the team’s defense.

Justin Choi (who is a great twitter follow) pointed out that high sinkers have, generally, been average to slightly above average pitches, but they took a step up in 2021.

This is a curious trend. The point of sinkers has always been to get groundballs, so it seems counter intuitive to throw them up in the zone. It seems better to chase whiffs and strikeouts with more strikeout-oriented pitches, such as four-seam fastballs. However, Matz has thrown exactly 24 four-seamers, with his last one coming in 2018. Still, if high sinkers are effective, it is difficult to make an argument against throwing them up.

Despite the league-wide improvement on high sinkers, Matz’s sinker did not become much more effective in 2021. Rather, it was Matz’s changeup that led to his career-best numbers. Of the seven home runs than Matz surrendered against his sinker, all seven came in the upper two thirds of the zone, with five coming in the top third. Of the 22 extra base hits that Matz allowed, 19 came in the upper two thirds of the zone, with eight in the top third and three in the bottom third. It is important to remember that Matz threw significantly more pitches at the top of the zone, so it makes sense that he would allow more hits and extra base hits in that region. Still, the difference is telling.

Matz gave up 14 singles at the bottom of the zone, and 20 at the top. This is where he makes up the difference. The left-hander gives up a higher rate of hits at the bottom of the zone, but the hits at the top of the zone tend to go for extra bases more often. Despite giving up significantly more extra base hits on high sinker, his the wOBA against the pitch was about equal in the upper regions and the lower regions of the zone.

It seems that he is content to deal with more hard contact and more whiffs while sacrificing groundballs. This may a trade that he is equipped to make, though, because his sinker drops just 18.4 inches (11% less than the average sinker), and it actually drops less than Adam Wainwright’s four-seamer. Still, I would not be surprised to see the Cardinals tell him to throw more low sinkers. It is generally easier to take away groundball base hits than it is to take away extra bases in the outfield.

To summarize, Matz throws high sinkers, but he did not benefit from the league-wide (pitching) improvement in results on high sinkers. He has a higher strikeout rate and a lower groundball rate than most sinkerballers, but he is still pretty much an average mid-to-back-end starter. He certainly has a confusing profile, and it is one that the Cardinals could tweak in 2021. A more traditional strategy would lead to more groundballs, which could help Matz reap the benefits of elite defense and a pitch location that is less susceptible to extra base hits. Matz’s sinker characteristics (above average velocity, below average sink) may cause his sinker to play better at the top of the zone, though, so I expect that he will keep it up.

This is one of the most interesting things about Steven Matz. I am excited to see where he throws his sinker in 2022, and how well he does with the pitch. He is certainly uncommon when it comes to his use of the pitch, and that makes him one of the more interesting sinkerballers in the league.