First Pitch: The Most Important Pitch For a Pirates’ Pitcher?

Earlier today I wrote an article about the sinkerball. By that, I mean I wrote over 4700 words on that one pitch, which consisted of information I received from over a dozen interviews. I don’t know if he reads the site, but I do want to give a public thanks to Charlie Morton for all of his insight with the article. The article was inspired by the initial conversation I had with Morton, then grew after a 15 minute interview with him, and I kept adding more as I kept following up with him and clarifying different things. I’d also like to thank Russell Martin, Jared Hughes, and Ray Searage, who all spent some time discussing the pitch and giving me good background info for the article. And of course a big thanks to all of the pitchers in the article for their time with the interviews, then again for their time when I decided to take pictures of the grips, then once again when I realized that I needed an additional picture of the bottom of the grip and the thumb placement.

If you haven’t read the article yet, I ask you to check it out, only because it took a month of research and writing, plus a lot of dedicated time and information from the above pitchers. I titled the article “The Art of Pitching: Mastering the Sinkerball”, with the intention of having more articles in the series in the future. So far the reaction to this article has been good, and I’m already thinking up the next pitch to research.

As for this article, I had a ton of quotes that were left out. Most of these were several guys saying the same thing on the pitch. But I also cut a section that involved more analysis as it relates to the Pirates and their approach, rather than analysis specifically on the sinkerball. Here is that section.

The Most Important Pitch For a Pirates’ Pitcher?

The Pirates love sinker ball pitchers. They go after sinkerball guys in trades and free agency. They build their infield around strong defenders who can gobble up as many ground balls as possible. They incorporate defensive shifts to maximize the defensive efficiency.

Last year the Pirates led the majors in ground ball percentage, and it wasn’t close. They had a 52.5% ground ball rate, with second place belonging to the St. Louis Cardinals and their 48.5% ground ball rate. The Pirates threw 10.6% sinkers and 15.1% two-seam fastballs in 2013. That was above the MLB averages of 7.7% and 13.7% respectively. Their combined usage of the two-seam and sinker ranked 7th in baseball last year.

This is not a coincidence. It’s an organizational approach. Not only do the Pirates target these guys in the majors, but they push the sinkerball in the minors. Pitchers start off by learning command of the four-seam fastball, then learn a two-seamer as they’re about to make the jump to the upper levels.

“It’s one of the elements that we like,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said on the ability to get ground balls. We like people who can throw strikes, and we like people who strike people out. You don’t always find all of those, unless they’re winning Cy Young’s.”

“I can speak to what I learned in the minor leagues, and that’s to keep the ball down and keep it on the ground. That’s what they wanted me doing,” Jared Hughes said. “They’re really just stressing ‘Keep the ball down. Keep it on the ground. We’ve got good infielders. They’ll take care of you.’ They do stress it in the minor leagues, especially to right-handed pitchers.”

In 2013, the Pirates had success largely because of their defensive efficiency, and their approach with maximizing efficiency against ground balls. All of this is impossible if pitchers can’t execute a good sinker. The fact that the Pirates have so many sinkerball pitchers probably makes it easier for young sinkerball guys, and new sinkerball pitchers to make that transition. The ability to share grips with so many players in one locker room is a luxury that not a lot of teams can offer. The Pirates’ pitching coaches have shown a good ability to know when a player needs an adjustment or guidance. A lot of this guidance has resulted in bounce back stories.

For the approach the Pirates take with their pitching and defense, I feel that a well executed sinkerball is probably the most important pitch that a Pirates’ pitcher can have.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered the 2014 Prospect Guide yet, I just got a small shipment in from the publisher over the weekend. This year the Prospect Guide has sold three times as many copies as last year’s version. I thank everyone who ordered for the first time, or continues to order year after year. As long as there is a steady demand, and as long as the publisher offers me discounts where I can sell the book to you for $21 instead of $25 on the publisher site, then I’ll try to keep the book in stock. But right now the orders will be small and limited, usually aimed at keeping the book in stock for a few weeks at a time. You can order your books on the products page of the site.

**If you’ve submitted an application to write for the site, I haven’t gotten to them yet. I’ve been really busy with the sinkerball article, as well as a few other big articles. I also didn’t want to start the process of going through applications yet, because I wanted to have that sinkerball article to point to. If you applied to be an MLB Analyst, this is what I want. I don’t want game recaps, or surface level analysis, or cookie cutter features, or human interest stories. This year I want to go with a different approach on the site, producing a lot of hardcore, in-depth analysis on the game or the team. The sinkerball article is one example. Another example would be James Santelli’s article on defensive shifts from last year. It’s nothing at all like a beat writer job, or like we’ve done in the past. There will also be a few different people per week writing content for the site on the major league level, rather than just one person at a time like in previous years.

I’ll be going through the applications this week now that the sinkerball article is out of the way.

**The Art of Pitching: Mastering the Sinkerball

**First Base Market: Davis and Smoak Don’t Seem Like Possibilities

**Draft Prospect Watch: Prep Shortstops Moving In Different Directions

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • sean

    Tremendous article on the sinker Tim, and I’m excited for future installments. I would love to see an article on the changeup. It seems like it’s the pitch that separates starters from closers, and it’s a pitch with a thousand different grips. I wouldn’t be surprised if no two pitchers on the team grip theirs the same way. I’ve always thought it’s interesting that it’s basically a pitch where you’re intentionally gripping it in an awkward way to take velocity off the ball, and how a pitcher has to find the right grip that it’s ‘comfortable’ to throw and has the proper separation from their fastball.

  • bucsws2014

    Congrats on getting a lead para for the sinkerball story on MLBTR. Hopefully that got you a bunch more hits. Good article.

    Morton has always been an interesting guy to listen to, whether as a general interview or discussing craft. Not the smoothest talker (but better than Jamie Dixon!), but always thoughtful and seemingly willing to answer any questions without using standard MLB cliches, even through dark times. He’s definitely a guy I want to root for. Hopefully he finally gets his run of 3-5 years of injury-free dominance starting this year.

  • Lee Young

    For Pirate coverage, Tim continues to blow away the competition.

    • Ron Loreski

      Only a matter of time before MLB.com comes calling. He sure blows Tom Singer out of the water! I don’t even read articles from Pirates.com anymore.

  • Jason

    Hi, Tim. Just a thought, as you are adding content to the site. I think it might be interesting to include more prominent articles or links to stories by other media outlets, to add a bit of a news feed feel to Pirates Prospects.

    For example, I visit Steelers Depot regularly because they post updates on the Steelers any time something newsworthy is written elsewhere. I don’t like some of the blustering by the authors at Steelers Depot or the site layout, but I trust that they are publishing the news stream and that very little falls through the cracks. Similarly, I like the concept behind NBC’s Hardball Talk, which I’m sure you know. It is a stream of interesting baseball stories from other outlets and gives me a nice quick view of what’s going on. And MLB Trade Rumors also has a somewhat similar approach to content streaming.

    These entities (and others) seem to be generating pageview revenue from this approach that compensates their efforts, and it might be a next phase for Pirates Prospects to be the complete one-stop shop for all Pirates news, features and analysis. You could source from traditional media (Post-Gazette), blogs (Bucs Dugout), baseball sites (FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus) and general sports sites (ESPN, SI, etc.), as well as any other one-off sources that you come across. Essentially, you become the gateway to everyone else’s Pirates-related content, as well as your own content.

    Anyway, your note about adding an analyst coaxed me to convey the concept that I’ve had for a while. I love where this site is today and where it’s going, as you know. Hope I’m not overstepping my bounds. Thanks.

  • piraddict

    Wonderful idea to expand this article into a series on all of the pitches Tim! Since the lead is “The Art of Pitching” it would be great to include articles on the mental battle between the pitcher and the batter as well as the physical techniques of throwing the pitches. For instance,
    What is the basis for maxims such as:
    “Work fast, change speeds, throw strikes (this last one is obvious of course0″
    “High and Tight, Low and Away”
    “Out in three pitches or less”
    “Keep the ball down in the zone” vs. (Pitchers who live on high fastballs at the top of the zone)
    Or explore issues such as:
    What are the best sequence of pitches to get a batter out ( not only pitch selection but choice of speed)?
    Why were Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine Hall of Fame pitchers when the didn’t throw very fast?
    What are the best pick off moves?
    What is the optimum strike to ball ratio of pitches thrown?
    I foresee that when you compile all of your articles into a book to be sold on the website you will have a resource that every Little League pitcher in America will want to buy. Eventual sales will be in the millions of copies! It’s great to be you!