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Cardinals Sinkers: The Bad

There are plenty of arms on the Cardinals staff struggling with their sinkers. I examine a few to see why that is.

St. Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images

On Sunday, I wrote a piece examining the best sinkers on the team, and why some pitchers’ sinkers have been really effective this season. Now, I’m returning to the negative side of the topic, to take a look at why some sinkers have been crushed this year.

Here’s an updated table from last time, listing the worst sinkers on the team, sorted by run value (remember, a positive run value is bad for pitchers).

The Bad Sinkers

Pitcher Run Value wOBA xwOBA Usage
Pitcher Run Value wOBA xwOBA Usage
Drew VerHagen 3 0.462 0.476 23.5%
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 0.407 0.391 61.5%

Jordan Hicks

I’ll start with Jordan Hicks, because his case is perhaps the simplest out of all of these since he has a good sinker. That’s not exactly shocking to anyone who has ever watched him pitched. A 98 mph sinker with above average movement in both directions is just nasty. There’s no other way to look at it.

So, the simple answer is enough for Hicks. He isn’t accurate enough with the pitch and he was miscast as a starter.

Look at the career numbers against his sinker. Notice how everything is a career high this year.

Jordan Hicks’ Sinker

Year Avg SLG wOBA Hard Hit Rate
Year Avg SLG wOBA Hard Hit Rate
2018 0.238 0.300 0.308 33.3%
2019 0.183 0.283 0.253 31.4%
2021 0.182 0.273 0.325 15.0%
2022 0.254 0.365 0.355 42.9%

The starter experiment hasn’t gone well. Jordan Hicks is basically a walking sinker. If his sinker isn’t doing well, then he isn’t either.

He doesn’t have good enough command and control and he doesn’t have a viable third pitch, which makes him a poor fit in the rotation. He has a great sinker, but he can’t command it well enough in long outings and hitters can adjust the longer he’s left in the game.

I expect a move back to the bullpen will rejuvenate Hicks and his nasty sinker. I wrote an article before Hicks made his first start and said that he would need to develop a third pitch that he could throw at least 10-12% of the time, he would need to stay healthy and he would need better control. After 7 starts, it’s clear that he did none of these things since he has thrown his changeup 5% of the time, is currently on the IL, and has a walk rate of 15.9%.

A return to the bullpen is what he needs, unless the St. Louis Cardinals want him to work out his issues as a starter in Memphis. His sinker is better than he has shown when he’s cast in the right role. I’m not worried about it and you shouldn’t be either.

Drew VerHagen

I’m not going to consider Aaron Brooks because he’s down in Triple-A now and I doubt we’ll see him in St. Louis again, so I’ll examine VerHagen now. The interesting thing is that he actually does a great job of mirroring his sinker with other pitches. I wasn’t expecting that, especially after I saw how important pitch mirroring is to Mikolas’ sinker.

Drew VerHagen Spin Direction

Pitch Spin Based Observed
Pitch Spin Based Observed
Sinker 12:45 1:30
4-Seam 12:45 12:30
Changeup 1:00 2:15
Curveball 7:00 7:00

That might actually be better than Mikolas. He mirrors four pitches nearly perfectly. The sinker and four-seam look exactly alike at the beginning, while the changeup and curveball are just slightly off from being perfect mirrors of the fastballs.

If he has such excellent pitch mirroring, then how is he struggling? Because there’s more to deception than just mirroring.

The problem with VerHagen is that he doesn’t take the next step into tunneling. There’s a difference. Pitch mirroring is simply matching spin, tunneling is trying to make two pitches travel on the same path, with the same spin, for as long as possible before diverging as far away as possible by the time they cross the plate.

Let me put it this way. When VerHagen throws a sinker and a four-seam, they both look the same right out of his hand because they have the same spin. That’s pitch mirroring. If he throws the sinker outside and the four-seamer inside, then they are less deceptive because they aren’t traveling along the same path. A hitter may still see the same spin but he can distinguish which pitch is which based on scouting reports.

If VerHagen threw both pitches at the same spot on the outside corner, they would travel the same path for a while before the sinker cut toward the middle of the plate and the four-seamer stayed true. That’s tunneling, and it makes it really difficulty for a hitter to make hard contact.

Now that we’ve established the difference between the two, I can comfortable say that VerHagen is great at pitch mirroring and TERRIBLE at pitch tunneling. I mean, truly horrible. Like it can’t get much worse.

The first reason why he’s bad at tunneling is his pitch location.

Here’s where he likes to throw his sinker. Notice the tight concentration on VerHagen’s glove side.

Now, here’s the location of his four-seamer.

Notice how the red zones are further toward his arm side. That’s the problem. His sinker breaks toward his arm side (13.4 inches of arm side run) and his four-seamer stays straight (3.1 inches of arm side run). So, he’s starting his sinker outside and letting it break back over the plate while throwing his sinker middle and in. Those pitches are never on the same path to the plate.

That’s an obvious difference to a hitter and if a hitter has seen a scouting report or picked up on VerHagen’s tendencies, then he’ll lose all deception regardless of spin.

Even though he’s not tunneling his fastballs, he does do a better job with locating his curveball and his changeup to keep them on a similar path with his sinker. So at least it’s not all bad when it comes to location.

It doesn’t stop with location. VerHagen isn’t tunneling because he doesn’t have a consistent release point for all his pitches. This is what makes any potential tunneling impossible.

VerHagen Release Points (measured in feet)

Pitch Vertical Release Point Horizontal Release Point
Pitch Vertical Release Point Horizontal Release Point
Sinker 6.59 -1.46
4-Seam 6.76 -1.24
Changeup 6.67 -1.34
Curveball 6.88 -1.07

This is the real problem with VerHagen. Honestly, I don’t know how he’s pitching in the majors with such a dead giveaway on his pitches.

Any perceptive hitter should immediately be able to pick up on what he throws simply based on his release point. VerHagen releases his four-seamer 2 inches higher than he release his sinker and he release his sinker over 2 12 inches more out to the side. That’s an obvious arm slot change to a hitter. He is clearly dropping his arm down to get more run on the sinker but by doing that, he’s forfeiting any advantage he could get from tunneling.

It’s gets even worse with his curveball. His vertical release point is a whopping 3 12 inches higher when he throws a curveball as opposed to a sinker while his horizontal release point is over 4 12 inches further out on his sinker.

That’s wild! It’s no wonder hitters have teed off him this year. He doesn’t hide his pitches and he surely isn’t even coming close to tunneling them.

Here’s what a consistent release point looks like, courtesy of Miles Mikolas (of course).

Mikolas Release Points

Pitch Vetical Release Point Horizontal Release Point
Pitch Vetical Release Point Horizontal Release Point
Sinker 6.56 -2.14
4-Seam 6.64 -2.08
Curveball 6.62 -2.08

These are the three pitches that Mikolas mirrors and his release points vary less than an inch in either direction on all three. That’s how you tunnel pitches!

Both Jason and I have said here and on Twitter that we think VerHagen has the stuff to be an effective reliever. I still think that’s true.

With a more consistent release point and better location of his fastballs, VerHagen could be a really deceptive pitcher with a lot of movement. That’s a recipe for a great arm. But, he has a lot of work to do to get there, as he might as well be tipping his pitches at this point.

After this analysis I’m not surprised that his ERA and FIP are almost 6. I also believe more firmly in his potential to be a productive arm with the Redbirds if he could start releasing his pitches from the same point. Two things can be true at once.

Steven Matz

For Steven Matz, the answer is much simpler. He’s throwing too many sinkers down the middle. Easy-peasy right? Well...hopefully.

The Major League meatball rate average is 7.3%. Matz’s sinker meatball rate is 13.5%. That’s nearly double the league average! i’ll say the same thing I did about VerHagen, truly horrible.

Hitters have a whopping .815 wOBA against Matz’s middle-middle sinkers, which explains a great deal of his struggles with the pitch.

The good news is that 13.5% would be a career high by a lot. He’s never even been close to that, and I don’t expect him to finish that high this season.

The second problem may be location. He loves high sinkers, but so do opposing hitters.

I would love to say that Matz should bring his sinker to the bottom of the zone, but that’s just not who he is. He’s going to stay up top because that’s what he’s done his entire career. His lack of success could just be some small-sample weirdness, but it’s impossible to say until he comes back from the IL and makes some more starts.

Potential problem number three is that he doesn’t mirror his sinker with anything and it doesn’t really have much deception. Not exactly a great recipe for success.

The spin based movement on Matz’s sinker is 10:15. The next closest pitch is his slider, at 10:45, while his changeup comes in at 9:15. Both of those are kinda close, but not really enough to mirror his sinker. Even his curveball is 6:30 away from his sinker, meaning it’s a half hour away from being a perfect mirror.

It would be nice to see him tweak the spin on those pitches to match his sinker (or be 6:00 away from it), but his spin has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Again, it’s possible that he changes, but I doubt it.

Matz’s sinker doesn’t even have much deception by itself. It comes out at 10:15 and it finishes at 10:15. That means it keeps the same spin and the same movement pattern the whole way. There is not late break, there’s only break. That’s much different from the other sinkers that we’ve covered which usually start about a half hour or 45 minutes away from 12:00 before finishing much further away.

Matz’s sinker is pretty much clear as day when it’s coming at a hitter. The hitter can identify the pitch and the movement pretty early and then all he needs to do is hit it. It’s not like the sinker has great movement either. It’s run is about average and the drop is 13% below average.

The one thing that Matz’s sinker does have going for itself is above average velocity, but other than that, it’s a pretty standard sinker. There’s nothing really special about the pitch, and that’s probably why Matz has only had one season where the pitch has had a better run value than 0.

He’s close to having a mirror with his other pitches, so that’s probably the best way for his sinker to improve. Better luck and maybe a few more low sinkers will help, but he doesn’t appear to have much more than an average sinker, which is weird since it makes up half of his arsenal.

The pitch isn’t super exciting and it really doesn’t have anything going for it, but I’m not expecting it be as bad as this all season. That’s strictly based on his history with the pitch.

It’s not a pitch I’m in love with so I’m still expecting it to have a positive run value, as in positive for the hitter.

Conclusion

For the sake of time, I’m not going to mention T.J. McFarland, in part because I don’t think he’ll be on the team much longer now that Zack Thompson is taking over his role. But, since we covered a lot of ground I’ll recap the sinkers that we covered:

Hicks: Nasty. Fine once he goes back to the pen.

VerHagen: Awful release points but great mirroring, bringing his release points together would allow the mirroring to work.

Matz: Boring, standard sinker. What you see is what you get. More reliant on velocity than deception, mirroring, or movement.

That’s it for my examination of sinkers. I covered the best and the worst sinkers on the team, but there are plenty others I didn’t cover.

13 pitchers have thrown sinkers to at least 10 hitters and of those 13, just 4 have sinkers with negative run values (Mikolas, Naughton, Liberatore, Woodford). The Cardinals’ reliance on sinkers has not been great overall, but it’s mostly been fine, outside of a few arms with catastrophic sinkers.

I hope you enjoyed this little mini-series! I enjoyed writing it and I found it to be a worthwhile examination of a pitch that determines so much for the team.