Countering the Fly Ball Revolution with Sinker Heavy Pitchers?

As highlighted in recent books such as Swing Kings by Jared Diamond and The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, many Major League hitters have been able transform their careers over recent years by turning to somewhat unconventional sources of information and coaching. Many of these players have turned to “swing whisperers” who have helped transform their swings into ones that are much more efficient and better suited for the modern game. While not being directly taught by these “whisperers”, one of the main results of the new swings being adopted by Major Leaguers is an increase in launch angle. Given the lively balls used across Major League Baseball in recent years and the fact that line drives and fly balls are generally going to lead to better results than ground balls, it certainly makes sense for hitters to be adopting swings more geared towards driving the ball in the air. The results of this are very obvious league-wide and it is perhaps most easily visualized by looking at the average launch angle of all Major League hitters over the Statcast era.

One of the most consistent, noticeable adjustments made by Major League hitters over recent years has been a change in hitters swing angles. Many of the games most successful hitters have adapted swings with what @SwingGraphs on Twitter calls an increased vertical bat angle, or VBA for short. According to SwingGraphs, increasing VBA generally leads to much more consistent quality contact and VBA will especially increase on pitches located down in the strike zone. Contrasted to typical four-seam fastballs, sinkers will generally be much more effective when located lower in the zone.

The adjustments made at the plate by hitters over recent years, paired with the fact that sinkers don’t generate nearly as many swings and misses and are thus more susceptible to BABIP randomness. This fact, combined with the much more lively balls used across Major League Baseball over recent years, has turned many of the league’s more analytically inclined teams away from pitchers who feature the sinker as one of their primary offerings.

Prior to the 2020 season, two teams at the forefront of the movement away from sinkers were the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers. These two teams are generally considered among the most, if not the most analytically inclined organizations in all of baseball. Despite claims made by a certain ex-player turned TV “analyst” saying that analytically inclined teams keep getting an F in the class called playoff baseball, these were the two teams that represented the American and National League in the World Series this year. While these teams were previously at the forefront of the league’s movement away from sinkers, both the teams actually ranked top-ten in sinker usage this past year and the Dodgers threw sinkers more frequently than any other team in the league.

Despite this fact, both of these teams still featured very good pitching staffs this past season and both of these staffs ranked among the league’s top 3 in terms of ERA. While both of these teams were only middle of the pack in terms of strikeout rate, they were both elite at limiting hard contact. So what gives? Are sinkers now considered a new market inefficiency among the analytically inclined organizations that teams will all of a sudden start targeting to counter the fly ball revolution? Or is their success this past season using sinkers more of a coincidence?

Despite the sharp decline in usage over recent years, sinkers were still the third most frequently used offering in 2020 trailing only four-seamers and sliders.

By looking at the league wide wOBA numbers against each pitch type, sinkers were the worst pitch at limiting opponent offense in 2020 outside of only knuckleballs. Sinkers can however, be considered the worst performing pitch since only 23 total knuckleballs were tracked during the 2020 season, all of which were thrown by position players pitching. Since there wasn’t a massive change in hitter’s approaches at the plate and sinkers still appear very bad at limiting opponent offense, the success of both the Dodgers and the Rays pitching staffs seems quite unique. In fact, it is perhaps exactly that, the uniqueness of these staffs that was the driving force behind their success this past season.

Rather than targeting pitchers that throw sinkers all of a sudden, the success of both of these teams is much more likely derived from their ability to throw many different looks at opposing lineups throughout the course of the game. While both the Rays and the Dodgers are able to throw many different looks at opposing lineups and both feature an unusual amount of sinker ballers, the similarities between the two teams stop shortly after that.

Sinker heavy pitchers are very rarely viewed as starters nowadays and as very recently highlighted by Matt Mancuso here at BaseballCloud, paying relievers is considered very risky business. This is especially true when you consider the case of a team like the Rays, in which their small payroll makes it very unrealistic that they will invest large sums of capital in order to acquire such a volatile group of players. Despite the limitations, the Rays have been able to assemble a very successful group of pitchers, many of whom were acquired very cheaply after essentially being viewed as castoffs from other organizations. As everyone who watched the Rays run to the World Series is very well aware by now, the many different looks they were able to throw at opposing lineups played a very large role in the success they were able to have this year. While the Rays are very well known for their non-traditional use of pitchers, the relievers on the Rays still went to sinkers almost 6.5% more frequently than the starters used by the team this past season. Teams giving up on these pitchers too early, possibly due to their sinker tendencies as well as a variety of other factors, is how the Rays were able to acquire many of these players so cheaply. The Rays certainly do very well on the scouting side of things and they have a very good idea of the types of players they need to be targeting. By seeing through the limitations other teams saw in these players, they are able to visualize the ways they could improve each of these players and also the ways which they fit as pieces to a much larger puzzle. The results of this was the bullpen they assembled this past season and this bullpen was a large reason why they were able to reach the sports pinnacle last month.

The Dodgers are certainly not afraid to utilize more modern pitching strategies themselves, and this was made clear by their pitching usage during the World Series clinching game. While this is certainly the case, the Dodgers do feature what many would consider a much more traditional starting staff. The Dodgers managed to throw sinkers at a higher rate of any team in the league, despite the fact only one of their most frequently used starters during the regular season, Dustin May, threw the pitch consistently. While the Dodgers are built much differently from the Rays, they also seem to have a developed understanding of the importance of being able to throw many different looks at opponents throughout the course of a game.

While many of the Dodgers starters feature four-seam fastballs with above average rise, they were able to counter this by loading up their bullpen with guys mostly featuring sinking fastballs. These sinking fastballs move much more differently than the fastballs thrown by the Dodgers starters. Consider the difference between facing a guy like Walker Buehler, whose fastball featured the second most rise on average in all of baseball, against facing one of the sinker ballers that pitch out of the Dodgers bullpen. These fastballs move differently from one another and this makes it very difficult for opposing batters to square the pitch up and make quality contact against it. Like what is true with most sinker ballers, many of the Dodgers relievers don’t get swings and misses at a very high rate, they are however able to attack hitters by throwing strikes and pitching to soft contact. This is evident in the fact that the Dodgers bullpen had the lowest walk rate out of all Major League bullpens and they were also the second best bullpen in baseball at limiting exit velocity against.

While sinkers certainly don’t appear to suddenly be a pitch teams should be targeting in order to limit opposing offense, teams should be taking note of the Dodgers and Rays’ ability to throw many different looks at opposing lineups throughout the course of a game. Since increased VBA’s and the fly ball revolution are likely here to stay, teams need to continually be on the lookout for new ways to counter this increased offensive era across Major League Baseball. While they are able to do it successfully in differing styles, the Dodgers and Rays are some of the best examples of how teams should be using this concept to their advantage.

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