During the first week of Spring Training, I was watching the Major League pitchers doing their daily throwing programs, commonly referred to as long toss. For me, this time period involves snapping pictures for Instagram, waiting for players to start throwing bullpens, and taking notes on what I see the players throwing or working on during their flat ground sessions.
On this particular afternoon I noticed Charlie Morton and Brandon Cumpton stopped throwing and started talking. Morton and Cumpton were each throwing to other people, but were standing side by side. The common assumptions came into play here about what they were talking about. An article idea sparked in my head — the kind of idea you get early in Spring Training when you’re trying to generate stories from batting practice and long toss. Charlie Morton, a veteran sinkerball pitcher, talking to Brandon Cumpton, a rookie sinkerball pitcher. Morton must have been teaching Cumpton about how to improve his sinker. I decided I would ask both players about this after practice that day.
My original idea for this story was a simple article discussing how Cumpton was getting advice from Morton and was working on improving his sinker. Add in some numbers from Cumpton last year, and it would be an easy story that I could file away as I tried to get ahead during the early weeks of Spring Training. But after talking with both players, I quickly realized that there was so much I didn’t know about the sinker, and about what players discuss when they’re talking to each other about grips. After over a dozen interviews with nine players and coaches over the last month, I realized how complex something as simple as a sinkerball pitch could be.
Not All Sinkers Are Created Equally
If you look at the Pitch F/X data for the 2013 season, you’ll see that four current Pirates are classified as throwing sinkers more than 50% of the time. Those four are Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, and Cumpton. There’s only one problem with this. Not all of them actually throw sinkers.
After watching Morton and Cumpton talking on the field that day, I approached Cumpton to discuss his sinker. After some discussion about the pitch, and about working with Morton, he revealed something very surprising: he doesn’t even throw a sinker. Despite Pitch F/X labeling it a sinker, and despite a high ground ball rate, and despite actual sink on the pitch, Cumpton is actually throwing a four-seam fastball.
“For me, it’s a four-seam grip,” Cumpton said. “Just with my mechanics and my arm slot, it gets a little more run than usually four-seams do. There’s times I get back there and a catcher calls a two-seam, and I’m like ‘okay, here it comes, but it’s actually a four-seam’.”
Pitch F/X isn’t the only thing that doesn’t seem to care if Cumpton doesn’t actually throw a sinker. Russell Martin has a simple approach to the pitch, regardless of the grip you use.
“I really don’t care how you hold it,” Martin said. “If it’s got some depth to it, it is what it is. It’s a sinker.”
The sinker is traditionally viewed as a two-seam fastball thrown from a three-quarters arm slot. That’s the case with almost all of the players I talked to. Cumpton is the one exception. The term “sinker” can be all-encompassing to cover several pitch types that have sink. On that same note, the two-seam grip is an all-encompassing term, but there are many different variations of the grip, and each results in a different sinker.
“How many different ways can you grip a baseball? That’s how many different ways you can throw a sinker,” Morton said.
Which Grip Works For You?
Pitchers are always discussing grips with other pitchers, trying to get new ideas, and ultimately trying to find something that is comfortable and something that feels natural. In a lot of cases, the best coaches are teammates, whether that it a veteran showing a rookie a grip, a rookie showing a veteran a grip, a prospect helping another prospect, or an organizational pitcher in the lower levels helping a guy ticketed for the majors. The help can come from any player.
“I encourage that,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said about pitchers sharing grips.
When it comes to the sinker, guys are primarily looking for more movement. A grip that works for one guy might generate no movement at all for another pitcher.
“The key is to be yourself and find something that works for you that you can repeat, and that’s what pitching is,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “Pitching is just the ability to repeat mechanically your motion, and obviously the deception is, is everything coming out the same speed? Is everything coming out the same arm slot? If you can do that, and locate, you can become a very dominant pitcher.”
The one concern with looking for movement is that pitchers will want to avoid trying to manipulate the pitch to generate movement. This comes from either turning their wrist to the side, or lowering their arm slot.
“What they try to do sometimes is they [move their fingers to the side of the ball] and try to manipulate the ball,” Searage said. “You want to make sure that they keep their fingers on top of the ball and finish right on through it.”
The downside to this approach is that it makes the ball spin sideways, moving laterally across the zone, and making it easier for a hitter to square up on.
“We don’t want that,” Searage said. “We want downhill plane with the movement through those planes.”
If a guy is learning the two-seam fastball, then Searage will teach him the grip. If a guy comes into the system with a two-seamer that works, or if a guy finds a new grip that works, then Searage will leave the player alone.
“There are a bunch of guys who hold the two-seamer differently. If it works, I ain’t fixing anything that isn’t broken,” Searage said. “Everybody has their own preference, their own feel of the pitch. But the same standard technique of throwing the ball is the same.”
A lot of the players I talked with either mentioned that they’ve talked with Morton to get ideas on the pitch, or they’ve looked at Morton’s sinker as one of the nastiest sinkers they’ve seen. But Morton doesn’t take the credit of essentially being another pitching coach for sinkerball pitchers.
“Me talking to somebody about something, I’m not going over there and working with guys pitch to pitch,” Morton said. “They might credit me with something that they’re working on, but it’s really just a suggestion. ‘Hey, this is what worked for me.'”
Morton did discuss some of the players who were an influence on him when he was coming up with the Braves, and visiting Major League camp.
“When I had a chance to talk to some older guys when I was with the Braves, it was just unbelievable experience talking to guys who had been in the big leagues for 20 years,” Morton said. “John Smoltz, Tom Glavine were there. Tim Hudson. If I got a chance to talk to those guys, it was great. I can only give a limited amount of experience.”
The View From the Plate
Russell Martin can provide a unique perspective on the sinker. Not only does he catch all of the Pirates’ sinkerball pitchers, but he also has experience against the sinkerball as a hitter. Martin is known for his pitch framing, and he walked me through the process of catching the pitch, while also framing the pitch for a strike.
“I try to set up where I want it,” Martin said. “So as I receive, I try to receive with the ball. With the two-seamer that’s coming back, I try to catch it maybe a little bit deeper — because it will come back — and I kind of just naturally bring it back towards the zone where it’s naturally going.”
A lot of the pitchers I talked with discussed how the sinker requires trust. You have to trust that the pitch will move in a certain way, and you have to throw it to one spot, expecting it to end up in a different spot. Martin explained that the break is much smaller than a curveball, using the example he gave.
“[The curveball] has a much more significant break,” Martin said. “It’s very subtle with a two-seamer. If I’m asking a right-handed pitcher and he’s facing a lefty, and he wants to throw a fastball away — if I set up on the corner, and he aims there, more often than not it’s going to start there and it’s going to end four or five inches off the plate. If I shade the middle of the plate, and he aims where I’m at, a shade off the middle, he’ll get that quality pitch that looks like a strike for a long time, and then darts down and ends up being a quality pitch for a weak ground ball.”
Martin says that his job is to understand his pitcher’s strengths, and that 99 percent of the time you will use a pitcher’s strengths even if it plays into a hitter’s strengths. But sometimes you can get away from that.
“If you have a matchup where this guy is a decent low ball hitter, you can go away from the sinker,” Martin said. “All pitchers have the ability to locate a fastball up, even if it’s not in their comfort zone.”
As a hitter, Martin affirmed that a true sinker is harder to hit than a pitch that is manipulated, resulting in a flat pitch with lateral movement.
“Much tougher when it really has sink,” Martin said. “A not well executed sinker will be left up a little bit, and it will have more side action. It’s easier to get barrel on it. It’s easier to drive. Sinkers that have, I like to call it a little bit of depth, are much harder to hit. Are much tougher to get underneath and drive.”
The Hardest Sinker to Throw
Most sinkerball pitchers throw their sinker to the arm side. When it comes to the glove side, against an opposite handed hitter, they will throw an extension fastball — that is a four-seam fastball that runs straight and in on the hitter. But some pitchers can throw the two-seam fastball and get movement on their glove side.
“The guys that are really, really good are the guys that have that front hip comebacker,” Martin said, noting that A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton were both good at this. “It’s a really tough pitch to hit. It’s a tough pitch to pull the trigger on. But it’s also probably the toughest pitch to locate and to execute as well.”
Vin Mazzaro, who is a sinkerball heavy pitcher, agreed: “That’s probably the hardest pitch to throw sinker-wise, is to a left-hander and run it back in. That’s a pretty good pitch to have.”
Martin explained why that pitch is so difficult from a hitter’s perspective: “It’s one of those pitches where, if you can execute it, that front hip two-seamer coming back, whether you’re a lefty or a righty depending on the matchup, it’s just tough to pull the trigger. It’s like the cutter. You see where the ball is, and when you’re committed, you think you’re hitting the ball it a certain area, and the last four feet it’s moving. And it’s the same kind of physics behind the two-seamer. At the last four or five feet it’s coming back a little bit. So in your mind ‘it’s a ball’. And then the next thing you know it just falls in there.”
The dangers with this pitch is that if you don’t execute the pitch properly, the ball can run right into the sweet spot of the opposite handed hitter. For a right-hander, a sinker on the right side of the plate might start in the middle of the plate, then move inside. That same movement, when thrown inside against a left-hander, will move to the middle of the plate.
The Pirates primarily focus on throwing down in the zone, and learning the pitch to the arm side. Once a pitcher starts to have success and mature with that pitch, they will start to work on the two-seam to the glove side of the plate.
Situational Sinkerball Pitchers
Not everyone who throws a sinkerball uses it as a primary pitch. Francisco Liriano has talked about getting the command on his sinker early in camp. Phil Irwin added a two-seam fastball when he made the jump to Double-A. Yet both of these guys use the pitch as a complement to their four-seam fastball.
“It adds another look,” Searage said. “And it’s a complement to those guys. We’re not going to go crazy with that pitch, but it’s good to have that in your repertoire.”
Here is a look at those two pitchers, and how they use the situational pitch.
Arm Slot: Three Quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Liriano added the sinker over the last two years.
“I was trying to get more ground balls, and trying to throw less pitches in the game and try to go deeper in the game,” Liriano said on adding the pitch. “So I figured if I throw more sinkers I’ll get more ground balls and quick outs.”
Pitch F/X Clarification: Liriano isn’t classified as using the two-seamer as a situational pitch. Pitch F/X had him throwing the pitch 41% of the time in 2012, and 31.8% of the time last year. But Liriano calls the two-seam a situational pitch. The difference is that Liriano’s four-seam fastball cuts, and can often be confused with a two-seam fastball, thus increasing his percentage for that pitch.
Arm Slot: High Three Quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Irwin started throwing the two-seam fastball a little more often in High-A, and turned to it a little bit more after jumping to Double-A.
“It became a real situation pitch for me,” Irwin said. “Give me a ground ball when I needed a double play. They even showed me how to use it as a strikeout pitch. I try not to lean on it. It was just a situational pitch for me, and it’s become a really good weapon for me.”
Adjustment Difficulties: One of the issues Irwin has with the pitch is trying to stay on top of the ball, and trying to avoid manipulating the pitch. He runs into trouble when his elbow drops, which makes it hard for him to stay on top of the ball.
“It depends on how I feel that day,” Irwin said. “If I’m really on top of the ball and working it down, it’s going to work more as a sinker. If I’m a little later, and the ball’s up in the zone, it’s going to go sideways on me. So that’s one thing I’ve really got to make sure to stay on top of the ball, and make sure it’s a sinker and not just a two-seam that runs in.”
The Pirates have a lot of guys who are classified as sinkerball pitchers. Pitch F/X isn’t always accurate in the classifications. I mentioned above that Brandon Cumpton is a four-seam pitcher who is classified with a sinker. Charlie Morton isn’t classified as a sinkerball pitcher, even though he is clearly a sinkerball guy. The benefits of being a heavy sinkerball guy are clear, especially when you’ve got a strong defense behind you and a pitcher friendly park.
“Guys that have good sinkers, they have the luxury of not necessarily having to pinpoint and locate everything,” Russell Martin said. “They can try to throw a sinker down the middle, and it never ends up down the middle. When they stay down in the zone, they get a lot of ground balls. Early contact. They have the luxury of decreasing the damage that way. Especially if you take a guy like Charlie. He’s got a great arm. He’s got weight on his ball. So he gets a ton of ground balls. Jeanmar Gomez is another guy who’s got a good two-seamer.”
Here is a look at several Pirates sinkerball pitchers, along with information on when they added the pitch, any adjustments they made, and any Pitch F/X clarification.
Arm Slot: Three Quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Morton started throwing the pitch in 2006. The late Bruce Dal Canton, who was his pitching coach at the time in High-A, taught him the grip. Prior to that, Morton’s sinker wouldn’t move at all. The strange thing was that he was getting sinking movement with his four-seam fastball.
“It took me awhile to start to feel like I was consistent with it,” Morton said. “In 2011 with the adjustment that [Jim Benedict] and [Ray Searage] made with me, everything was just more natural. It was just a natural arm slot for me.”
Notable Adjustments: The Pirates made some big changes with Morton in 2011, giving him the “Roy Halladay” look. Morton says that the arm slot didn’t really change much, but that an adjustment in his torso angle helped him to throw on top of the ball.
“My arm slot relative to my body has always been really similar,” Morton said. “But moving my torso has allowed me to be more natural, and has allowed my arm slot and my release to be consistent pitch to pitch, which I struggled with a lot.”
Morton said that since the change he has a more consistent release, spin angle, and overall a more consistent sinker.
“I used to throw some really good sinkers, and I threw some sinkers that didn’t do anything,” Morton said. “And now they’re all pretty good and consistent compared to what I used to be.”
Pitch F/X Clarification: Pitch F/X actually classifies Morton’s pitch as a two-seam fastball, rather than a sinker. The only time he was ever listed as throwing a sinker was pre-2010. However, Morton says that is incorrect, and that he wasn’t throwing a sinker in the majors before 2010.
Arm Slot: Three quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Watson started throwing the sinker in 2012. Ray Searage showed him the grip, and Rod Barajas started calling the pitch more often in games. Prior to this, Watson was a four-seamer guy.
Notable Adjustments: The big adjustments for Watson have come from throwing the pitch more often, and throwing it in different situations. He didn’t get much movement at first, but stuck with the pitch and it eventually started to work.
“They just said be aggressive with it and just throw it,” Watson said. “Let it move on its own, and it’s been a good pitch for me.”
He only threw the two-seamer to lefties, working inside. Against right-handers he would throw extension four-seam fastballs, rather than a two-seamer which could run back over the plate. This year he might start throwing the pitch more often against right-handers. Russell Martin started calling the pitch against right-handers last year, and it worked well for Watson.
“Maybe this year we’ll start throwing it to the extension side,” Watson said. “For now I’m just trying to get command of it, and throwing it for strikes. Sometimes it will run up instead of sinking. It will be a run-in fastball. If I can get a grasp of both, and how to command both, that’s what I’m going for this year.”
Pitch F/X Clarification: Watson is classified as a four-seam guy in 2011, switching over to a sinker in 2012 and 2013. That’s accurate, based on my conversations with him.
Arm Slot: Three quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Mazzaro started throwing the sinker during his senior year of high school.
Notable Adjustments: He has had the pitch for a while, and tries different approaches to get more movement and take velocity off the pitch.
“I sometimes go in between the seams, and just go on the bare ball. I get a little bit more sink to it. Less velo,” Mazzaro said. “I’d rather have more movement than velo, just as long as you can control it.”
Mazzaro started believing in the pitch more since getting here, which came from trusting the pitch, and trusting where it was going to end up.
“At times it can be tough, but at times you have to learn about yourself,” Mazzaro said. “If you’re struggling, where to start it. Some guys start in the middle if it’s running a lot. It’s more of a trust thing. You have to trust that the ball is going to move. But when it’s on, you just come back with it to a lefty, and bring it inside and across.”
Arm Slot: Three quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Hughes has been throwing a sinkerball over the last four years.
Notable Adjustments: The biggest adjustment for Hughes was actually a small adjustment made in 2010 to generate more movement. He moved his arm slot down a bit, which generated more movement and classified the pitch as a sinker. Hughes is always seeking improvements, including talking with other pitchers about their grips and approaches.
“You’ve got to talk to guys,” Hughes said. “I talk to Charlie about his. I was actually talking to Seth McClung in the bullpen about how he throws his sinker, and he was showing me where he puts his thumb, and that sometimes he puts his thumb on the side of the ball. It takes a little bit off, but it moves a little bit more, so it’s a better pitch for a ground ball out.”
Arm Slot: Three quarters
When He Added the Sinker: Gomez started throwing the pitch in 2006 when he was in the GCL.
Notable Adjustments: Gomez initially had trouble getting movement on his sinker, or knowing where the ball was going to go when he did have movement. One of the things that helped Gomez was finding a throwing partner who also threw the sinker, which allowed him to learn more about the pitch and get feedback. He also has the general focus of aiming for the middle of the plate, so the ball ends up off the plate.
“When you have a big sinker, you want to throw right there in the middle,” Gomez said. “When you aim right in the middle, it will finish away.”
Arm Slot: “I’ve always been kind of a high three-quarters guy. I will inadvertently get behind and to the side of it, but I’ve never been straight over the top, I’ve never been side arm.”
When He Added the Sinker: Sadler started throwing the sinker during instructs in 2011, and found it to be a natural transition due to his arm slot.
“I started playing with it a little bit, and it just kind of came natural,” Sadler said. “That natural arm slot, it just kind of took off from there.”
Sadler started incorporating the sinker into his game more often at the end of the 2012 season when he moved to the starting rotation. He was focusing on quick ground balls, getting the double play ball, and pitching deeper into games. The pitch really took off during instructs that off-season, and he put the pitch in full play in Altoona during the 2013 season.
Notable Adjustments: Sadler didn’t have to make any adjustments, since the two-seam grip and his arm slot felt natural and led to natural movement. His focus is trying to avoid manipulating the pitch.
“I just let it go,” Sadler said. “A regular two-seam grip and just let it go. Any time that I find myself trying to manipulate it, or trying to add more or take away is when it gets inconsistent. I found if I just trust the grip, trust the delivery, that you get better results.”
Sadler does try to get advice from Charlie Morton when he can. Morton rehabbed in Altoona last year, where Sadler was playing. Sadler also moved near Bradenton over the off-season, and worked out with Morton and other pitchers and coaches who live in the area.
“I had a chance to talk with him [in Altoona], and living down here, and him living down here, we kind of bounce some stuff off of him,” Sadler said. “[He's] been very open, and very helpful. That’s a pitch that you have to trust. [I] have to trust where I’m throwing it. Trust what it’s going to do, and then let it do it’s work. He was the big one to just say ‘let it come’. I was getting really frustrated at the beginning because it was flat, it was up, I wasn’t really on top of it. He just said ‘let it come, just worry about getting your arm in shape. Don’t worry about anything, it will be there.’ So he’s really the person I’ve tried to bounce some stuff off of, and get some information from, and just learn from watching him how he does it and how he goes about his bullpens, how he goes about his mentality.”
Cumpton isn’t like the other pitchers on this list. He throws a four-seam fastball that gets classified as a sinker because of the movement that he gets from his arm slot and grip. The ball just gets natural movement, which is always a desired thing from a four-seam fastball. This situation does give some similarities to Charlie Morton’s situation before he added the sinker. Morton didn’t have a two-seam fastball, but had a lot of movement on his four-seam fastball. Morton thinks that Cumpton could get a lot more movement on his fastball if he found a way to make the move to a two-seam pitch.
“My guess is if he found a way to throw a two-seam, if he found a way to make that move, he would get more movement,” Morton said.
Cumpton is one of the pitchers who worked with Morton over the off-season. He came down to Bradenton a few months early to work out and work on getting ready for the season.
“Just picking his brain. Trying to see stuff,” Cumpton said on what he and Morton talk about. “Hear about what he’s going through and how he’s dealt with stuff.”
The day I saw him talking with Morton, they were discussing grips and seeing how each other threw their fastballs. Cumpton said he was just picking Morton’s brain. It will be interesting to see if Cumpton eventually tries to make the transition to a two-seam fastball. That’s not a switch that can come over night. It certainly took a long time for Morton to make the switch. Right now Cumpton profiles as a back of the rotation guy, and if he could add more movement and improve his fastball, he’d have the chance to improve his upside in the majors.
Mastering the Sinkerball
The sinker isn’t a simple pitch to throw. Prior to doing the research for this article, I thought of the sinker as one pitch that was thrown by a lot of people. What I learned was that there are many different types of sinkers, and sometimes a pitch will be classified as a sinker when it isn’t actually a sinker at all.
When a pitcher is learning the sinker, he can struggle to get any movement on the pitch. Even after getting movement on the pitch, a pitcher can have issues where he tries to manipulate the pitch to repeat the movement or generate more movement. Then the pitcher needs to learn to command the movement, and trust where the pitch is going to end up. This is easier on the arm side, and much more difficult on the glove side.
It’s not a simple process, and even the most established sinkerball pitcher is constantly evolving his pitch. But if a pitcher can get the movement, trust the movement, get command of the pitch, throw it inside, and especially throw it inside to the glove side of the plate, then that pitcher will be in possession of one of the best pitches in baseball.