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Cardinals Sinkers: The Good

The Cardinals throw a ton of sinkers with varying degrees of success. I look at one reason why some pitchers have great sinkers.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Joe Puetz/Getty Images

Let’s establish a basic premise before I begin. A single offering is difficult to analyze. There are a million reasons why a pitch can be successful and a million and one reasons why it can get crushed. Location, velocity, spin, deception, count, tunneling, and more all play a role in a pitch’s success. It’s basically impossible to determine precisely why a pitch is good, but it is possible to determine some factors that contribute to it’s success.

That’s what I will attempt to do in this piece. I will by no means give you a definitive explanation of why Miles Mikolas’ sinker is having so much success and Steven Matz’s isn’t. I will, however, give you some likely causes.

Let’s take a look at some of the most successful sinkers on the team and some of the least successful sinkers on the team and compare and contrast.

As of June 16th, the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff had thrown 9,354 pitches on the year. 2,590 of those pitches have been sinkers. That’s over a quarter of all pitches thrown by the Cardinals’ staff this year, or 27.7% to be precise.

All that goes to say is that the sinker is an important pitch. The Cards have always been a team that’s been fine with sinkers. Other teams in the league have gone away from them, choosing instead to focus on four-seamers. The Cardinals never really did that. This year, though, they seem to prefer sinkers.

It was a stated goal of theirs this offseason to get pitchers that will utilize the defense and the sinker is definitely a pitch that does that. It’s not surprise to see the team throwing a ton of sinkers, but, since the pitch is crucial to the success of the staff, it’s worth digging into how some pitchers have turned their sinkers into weapons while others haven’t.

One way to measure the success of a pitch is by using run value, as seen on Baseball Savant.

To briefly summarize run value, every pitch brings about a change in the expected runs a team is expected to score in a given inning. For instance, the offensive team’s expected runs drops slightly after a first pitch strike. So, run value is the sum of all of these changes for a particular offering. For a pitcher, a negative number is the goal. for a hitter, a positive number is what you’re looking for.

For a more detailed explanation, here’s a piece from Tangotiger’s blog.

Taking a sum of the run values for every pitcher’s sinker can give us a decent picture of how effective the pitch has been for the Cardinals this year.

In short, it’s not great. The run value overall is 15 (remember, positive numbers are bad for pitchers), but that is heavily weighed down by Steven Matz (7) and T.J. McFarland (8). Also Aaron Brooks has a positive 4 value, but he is no longer on the MLB roster.

As you would expect, there is a normal distribution with most pitchers falling between 2 and -2 and a few on the upper and lower extremes. The extremes are where I will focus.

Here’s a table of the best and worst sinkers (by run value) with the best listed first and the worst listed last.

Sinker Run Values

Player Run Value wOBA xwOBA Usage
Player Run Value wOBA xwOBA Usage
Miles Mikolas -5 0.253 0.275 26.8%
Adam Wainwright -3 0.250 0.360 29.1%
Packy Naughton -3 0.200 0.292 23.9%
Jordan Hicks 4 0.367 0.428 63.5%
Aaron Brooks 4 0.572 0.577 25.3%
Steven Matz 7 0.459 0.404 48.3%
T.J. McFarland 8 0.415 0.393 62.3%

Adam Wainwright’s xwOBA perhaps portends a bit of luck, but the trio of him, Mikolas, and Naughton have been lights out with their sinkers. On the other end of the table, it’s no surprise that Hicks, Matz, and McFarland are struggling since their bread and butter is getting hammered.

Let’s take a look at why this might be.

Again, because I don’t want to write a 10,000 word piece on why these pitches are getting the results they are, I’m just going to focus on one aspect that could be the difference between the best and worst sinkers.

That aspect is pitch mirroring. Again, there are lots of other things that effect the success of a pitch. Velocity and movement are both simple and important things to look at, but I wanted to push past that considering that neither Jordan Hicks (lots of velocity) nor T.J. McFarland (lots of movement) are having success with their sinkers. Other things to look at are command and control, so I will acknowledge that those are important without looking into them too much, at least for this article (though it would certainly be a worthwhile thing to do).

Now, let’s get back to pitch mirroring. Pitch mirroring is the concept of making two or more pitches look the same to the hitter’s eye. So, naturally, I will be considering sinkers in correlation with the other offerings in a pitcher’s arsenal.

Let’s begin with the best — Miles Mikolas. He throws five pitches (sinker, four-seam, curveball, slider, changeup) and everything but the changeup is near 20% usage or above. He’s someone who mixes his pitches a lot, so it makes sense to consider how the pitches might play off each other.

Before I go any further, let me explain a few terms for those of you who don’t frequent the spin direction part of a player’s Baseball Savant profile. Directions are considered as if on a clock, from 1:00 to 2:00 to 3:00 all the way to 12:00. Also, there are two measurements listed under spin direction. The first is called “spin-based” and that is the direction that is measured right a pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand. The second is called “observed” and that is what the hitter sees when the ball crosses the plate.

Now, back to Mikolas. The first thing that jumps out about his sinker is that it’s spin-based spin direction is 12:45, which is the exact same as his four-seamer. That means the two pitches look the exact same out of his hand. This deception is great for Mikolas, because hitters are unable to differentiate the pitch in the early part of it’s flight.

This sets the hitter up for failure because by the time the pitch crosses the plate, it’s a different offering, and it’s too late for the hitter to realize that. While the spin-based movement is the same, the observed movement deviates by 1:15 with the four-seamer at 12:30 and the sinker at 1:45.

Take a look at these pictures to see what I mean. Here’s Mikolas’ spin-based movement, which, again, is measured out of the pitcher’s hand.

Notice how all of Mikolas’ sinkers are at 1:00 and 2:00 and all of his four-seam fastballs are the same. This is what the hitter sees when he is trying to identify a pitch. Good luck finding the difference in flight.

Now, here’s a picture of the observed movement when the pitch has crossed the plate.

Notice how the sinker and the four-seamer are different now. That’s called deception. The pitches look the same out of the hand but then diverge on their way to the plate. The problem for the hitter, is that it’s too late at that point if he hasn’t identified the pitch.

That’s also called having late break. The sinker doesn’t start breaking right out of the hand. It looks just like a four-seamer, which, more or less, stays straight. The difference between the two pitches is about 3 inches of drop and 8 12 inches of run, which isn’t all that much, but it all comes late.

I hope it’s now clear why I wanted to take this approach to identifying why Mikolas’ sinker has been effective. Looking purely at velocity, he’s not super impressive at 92.6 mph. Looking purely at movement, he’s also not impressive, as he gets below average movement in both directions.

This is why more context is necessary. He doesn’t blow people away and he doesn’t throw frisbees, but he’s deceptive and has late break and that has allowed him to have success.

But wait, it gets even better for Mikolas. The spin based movement of his curveball is 5:45 away from his sinker. 6:00 is perfect mirroring because opposite spin looks the same to a hitter. So, this means that all three of Mikolas’ most commonly thrown pitches look practically the same coming out of his hand. His fastballs aren’t perfect mirrors of his curveball, but it’s about as close as it gets.

With that being the case, it’s no wonder that his sinker has been so good. It’s deceptive and it plays off of his other offerings. It’s not just the quality of the pitch in isolation that makes it so good, but also his ability to mirror it with two other pitches.

I’m not even considering command and control here, so I won’t tell you that this is THE reason why Mikolas has been successful with his sinker (or his fastballs in general). Rather, I’ll just say that spin direction and deception plays a role, and, in my opinion, a particularly large one.

Packy Naughton is similar.

Packy Naughton’s Deception

Pitch Spin Based Observed Usage
Pitch Spin Based Observed Usage
4-Seam 10:45 11:15 31.9%
Sinker 11:00 10:00 25.4%
Changeup 10:15 9:30 23.9%

The difference here with Naughton is that there is mor spread between the spin based movement of his pitches. They are still close enough to be somewhat deceptive, but Naughton could improve by matching his two fastballs and bringing his changeup closer. Still, take a look at this picture. There aren’t many time when Naughton’s changeup really looks different from his fastballs.

Naughton has slightly below average movement on his sinker, but his mirroring of three pitches helps his sinker play up. The location of these pitches also helps.

Take a look at where Naughton throws each of these pitches.

Naughton throws his four-seamer inside to righties and his sinker outside to righties. His sinker has about nine extra inches of run compared to his four-seamer, so he could start the pitches in the same location and watch his sinker run outside while his four-seamer stays inside. He could also throw the changeup in the same place and since it has practically the same run as his sinker but 12 inches more drop, it would end up low and outside.

Naughton pitches already mirror each other closely and his location heat maps indicate that he’s basically throwing his pitches in the same spot and letting them run into different parts of the zone. If he could have a little tighter mirroring, he could see some improvement, but his sinker is doing just fine as it plays off two most common pitches.

We’re looking at a much smaller sample size with Naughton, but he’s showing the same thing as Mikolas.

Interestingly, this effect is not unique to Mikolas or Naughton. In fact, most of the pitchers with quality sinkers also throw four-seamers. Adam Wainwright does, Dakota Hudson does, Jake Woodford does, and Genesis Cabrera does. So, too, do Drew VerHagen, Nick Wittgren, Matthew Liberatore, and Aaron Brooks, so it’s not like this is the only reason that a sinker is successful. It is interesting to notice, though, that the two worst sinkers on the team (by run value) come from pitchers who don’t throw four-seamers

Something that is unique to Mikolas, Wainwright, and Naughton is excellent control. That surely makes a difference even though I didn’t really touch on it in this piece. I would assume that control matters a lot when it comes to pitch mirroring, though, so I’m not surprised to see two pitchers with microscopic walk rates are reaping the benefits.

Of the 13 Cardinals pitchers who throw sinkers, 10 of them also throw four-seamers. The cumulative run value of these 10 sinkers is -7. The three sinkerballers (Hicks, Matz, and McFarland) who don’t throw four-seamers have a combined run value of 19. That’s quite the contrast.

The interesting thing about these three is that they could all have sinkers that would be considered good for various reasons. Hicks has the velocity and above average movement, McFarland has well above average movement in both directions, while Matz has made a career as a starter out of throwing high sinkers.

Hicks obviously has a good sinker, he has for his entire career, and I think it will normalize when he moves back to the bullpen. Still, it’s interesting to see the success that multi-fastball pitchers have had with their sinkers. Most four-seamers and sinkers have the same effect that I described above with Mikolas, though the fact that Mikolas mirrors three of his pitches is an added boost.

I am intrigued by the general pattern of sinker success when paired with a four-seam fastball. This may be something I try to examine more at the end of the season, while maybe taking a look at the whole league instead of just the Cardinals.

I originally planed on also looking at some of the pitchers with struggling sinkers and seeing why the pitch isn’t doing well, but I ran out of space for that. Since I’ve already written well over 2,000 words, I’m going to cut it off here. Come back on Tuesday for my analysis of the bad sinkers on the team. I’ll likely touch on Matz, Hicks, and McFarland and see what we find.

Also, as I was looking at his Savant page, I concluded that Dakota Hudson is weird. He would make a good contrast with Hicks and McFarland, so I may include him as well.

Thanks for reading! There’s a lot to dive into in regards to sinkers and pitch mirroring, so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments. Enjoy your Sunday and Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers!