Game 12, Angels at Mariners

marc w · August 4, 2020 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justin Dunn vs. Andrew Heaney, 7:10pm

It’s 2020, and we’ve had incredibly granular pitch data for over a decade. For the last few, we’ve got quasi-direct measures of spin, spin efficiency, and all manner of break measurements. Teams, of course, have even more; ultra-high speed cameras, wearable technology to measure stress, and everything pitchers need to tweak or design pitches from scratch. Nearly every team can create actionable coaching to target very specific patterns of movement to pair with other offerings or create less-hittable versions of the same pitch. And I think I know less about fastballs – the most easy-to-understand pitch – than ever.

One of the themes on this blog since 2016-2017 or so has been the interplay between pitchers and batters as the ball got slicker and fly balls starting turning into HRs at alarming rates. In the little batting ice age, the strike zone grew at the bottom of the zone, and pitchers targeted that area generating a lot of weak contact and called-strikes. But batters didn’t just shrug their shoulders and look for something better. They added loft to their swings, started actively stalking those low fastballs, and started destroying them. The “Trout Swing” was born, and it caused a sudden change in pitching approach.

The biggest casualty of this new approach was the sinker itself. Pitchers turned instead to four-seam fastballs that had more vertical movement, allowing them to sink less, and stay above batters’ swings. Vertical movement played extremely well at the top of the zone, leading both to more whiffs on fastballs themselves AND pairing extremely well with curveballs to deceive batters, who had a harder time distinguishing between the two pitches. At first, it seemed like there was no trade-off: you avoided the “bad” areas low in the zone, and you got more swing-and-miss and pop-ups to boot. But then batters adjusted again.

It’s taken a while, but in the (very) early-going in 2020, the sinker is making something of a comeback. It’s over 10% of pitches thrown this season for the first time since 2014, and it’s being thrown more often than it was back then.

Today’s opposing starter, Andrew Heaney, is a great example of a sinker specialist excelling in the current era. But what I think makes me so confused is the *way* he’s doing it. We all essentially know what a sinker is, and how it works, right? It’s a fastball thrown with side-spin, leading to more arm-side movement. Critically, the pitch doesn’t have as much backspin, leading to lower vertical movement, or, in english, more sink. All of this led to a series of trade-offs. On the plus side, that sinking movement led to a lot of ground ball contact, as batters hit the top of the ball. That arm-side movement made them very effective against same-handed batters, as the ball would tunnel in towards their hands. On the down side, they weren’t good at getting whiffs; high vertical movement/backspin produced strikeouts, whereas as sinkers were more designed for mis-hits. Still, how to utilize sinkers and four-seamers seemed easy. You’d get oddballs that threw something in between this dichotomy – Justus Sheffield’s low-spin, low-rise four-seamer in 2019 is a perfect example – and teams would try to push them towards one of the poles. Justus Sheffield’s low-spin sinker in 2020 is a great example of that, too.

With all of that as background, let’s turn our attention to today’s opposing starter, Andrew Heaney. Heaney’s been with the Angels since 2015, and has used his sinker about 60-65% of the time since then. It’s got a lot of movement, but it unlike many sinkers, it doesn’t actually…sink. With about 9″ of vertical movement, it looks like a tailing four-seamer, and that may be why Heaney’s ground ball rate has always been extremely low.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. From 2015 through 2017, he dutifully targeted the low strike, and while he got more of the middle of the zone than peak Derek Lowe or Justin Masterson, you could see the approach. He was hurt so much there’s less to go on, but he didn’t get many K’s in 2015, but after a few years in rehab, his K rate inched up in 2018 – his breakout season. But given that movement, he simply didn’t look like a sinkerballer at all. He got whiffs with his sinker, and that pitch generated a ton of fly balls, which in this day and age, meant he gave up a ton of home runs.

So he decided to just throw it like a four-seamer. Here’s how he’s using it since the start of 2019. For reasons I really can’t explain, this has turned the pitch into a dominant swing-and-miss pitch. In that time frame, his sinker – his SINKER – is generating a whiff/swing rate of about 30%. It was 12% in 2015. Moreover, it’s making his slider more deadly. There’s nothing weird in his velo – it’s identical to what it was in 2015. There’s nothing radically different in its movement over the years (normal swings and shifts). It’s just suddenly well-nigh unhittable. Heaney enters with a K/9 over 11 over his last 100+ innings, and his walk rate is declining.

It’s a very different situation, but it calls to mind Shane Bieber’s astonishing start in 2020 (and excellent 2019). Bieber’s been untouchable thus far, with 27 Ks and just 1 walk in 14 innings. Here’s the question, though: Why? What does Bieber *do* that’s producing this? Jacob de Grom throws a 94 MPH slider, and touches 100. Justin Verlander throws that high-spin, high-efficiency back-spin fastball, as does Gerrit Cole. Bieber does *none* of these things. It’s a perfectly average velocity fastball with perfectly normal spin rates and perfectly middle-of-the-road efficiency. Sure, sure, he gets most of his Ks on his breaking pitches, but you’re not supposed to be able to get away with throwing a perfectly average fastball in today’s game. Just like everyone knows you can’t succeed by throwing a sinker up in the zone all the time.

I feel like we know so little right now about how so many pitchers are doing what they’re doing. We can come up with ad hoc justifications, or point to one or two odd things about them, but it doesn’t seem to be as satisfying as the big picture ideas we thought we knew: high fastballs get swings and misses, and a “good” fastball has tons of vertical rise thanks to super high spin. The physics matched up with what we saw in the data at the time. But it’s the “at the time” bit that turned out to be the most important part of the statement.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lopes, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: White, 1B
7: Long, 2B
8: Moore, RF
9: Gordon, LF
SP: Dunn

Kendall Graveman’s sore neck has landed him on the 10-day IL. Also, reliever Zac Grotz has been optioned to the alternative site in Tacoma. They’ll be replaced by relievers Taylor Guilbeau, who’s already made an appearance, and Joey Gerber, who has yet to pitch above AA, but got plenty of action in the intrasquad games in the summer camp.

It’s Uber-prospect Jo Adell’s big league debut tonight. I got to see the athletic OF last year in Tacoma; he hit 2 HRs in two PAs before the game was cancelled by a sudden/heavy downpour. This guy is good.


5 Responses to “Game 12, Angels at Mariners”

  1. Westside guy on August 4th, 2020 9:38 pm

    Boy, watching Pujols against the Mariners… you probably wouldn’t think he was hitting .143 / .226 / .357

  2. Westside guy on August 4th, 2020 9:40 pm

    With the piped-in fan noise, I have to wonder – when the Astros come to town, think we’ll hear the sound of a trash can being banged on?

  3. Westside guy on August 4th, 2020 9:42 pm

    I gotta admit… I’m liking Kyle Lewis.

  4. Westside guy on August 4th, 2020 10:08 pm

    Whelp that’s another loss.

  5. Stevemotivateir on August 5th, 2020 6:56 am

    Dunn did well to slow the game down and get on track after that disastrous 1st inning.

    But man, Evan White is starting to look lost at the plate. Can Lopes handle 1B?

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