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How the Yankees have brought back the sinker

Matt Blake and the pitching staff zig while the rest of the league zags.

MLB: JUN 12 Yankees at Phillies

When Matt Blake was hired as pitching coach, there was a buzz of excitement around the fanbase, and justifiably so. He was instrumental in the Cleveland pitching factory that produced the likes of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Zach Plesac. It was easy to dream of him having a similar impact with the Yankees, and now in year two, we are seeing the ways in which he has begun to stamp his authority on the pitching department.

The Yankees pitchers are not afraid to experiment. In May, I investigated the rise in changeup usage across the staff. Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and others have made a conscious effort to feature the off-speed more, and this expansion of repertoire has paid off. Now, it looks like they’ve gone into retro mode with the reemergence of the sinker.

The game of baseball goes through endless cycles of pitchers and hitters adjusting to gain any edge they can. For a time, sinkerballers who could paint the edges at the bottom of the zone were the hot ticket. We have seen the launch angle revolution evolve partly as a response to that trend, with hitters optimizing their swings to get the ball in the air. To combat this, in recent years we have seen pitchers switch to prioritizing a high-spinning four-seamer fastball with late “rising” life thrown at the top of the zone. The idea is that slight uppercut swings have difficulty squaring up such pitches.

With the Yankees having brought in one of the most innovative and analytical pitching coaches in Blake, one could fantasize him churning out a whole fleet of Gerrit Coles. Instead, rather than try to shoehorn the entire staff into following a rigid pitching philosophy, Blake has shown an aptitude for identifying individual pitchers’ strengths and then giving them the tools and guidance to maximize what works best.

Cole’s fastball is elite because of its velocity, movement, and command, but not every Yankees pitcher has the alien physical ability to throw a Cole fastball. Not everyone can hoof up to 100. Not everyone has the ideal arm slot or grip to spin the four-seamer with the peak efficiency required to achieve that coveted rise. That is where the sinker comes into play.

Jameson Taillon has consistently cited the diversification of his repertoire as a key in his recent stretch of success. Part of this diversification includes the reintroduction of the sinker, a pitch he abandoned altogether at the start of the season after using it as his primary weapon in his Pittsburgh days. He has since picked it back up, starting with his May 23rd outing, and has used it roughly eight percent of the time. He deploys it just enough to sow the seed of doubt in a hitter’s mind, so they can’t just sit four-seam movement when identifying heater out of his hand.

Corey Kluber started the season throwing mainly four-seamer as his fastball of choice, but quickly shifted to a sinker/cutter combo. This shift coincides with his April 27th start, after which he has thrown less than a dozen total four-seamers. The result: his xwOBA against fastballs fell 70 points.

Jonathan Loaisiga is probably the foremost beneficiary of this switch to the sinker. Prior to this season, he threw the four-seamer almost 50 percent of the time with the sinker a distant afterthought. This year, the script has flipped, with the sinker making up 55.6 percent of his pitches thrown and the four-seamer only four percent. In doing so, he’s only gone and become one of the best relievers in baseball. Obviously, there are many other factors in play with health being at the forefront, but this stark shift in fastball variance cannot be ignored.

This trend continues as you scan the pitching staff. They brought in the sinker-throwing Clay Holmes near the deadline and he has been mostly excellent. Yesterday, I wrote about how learning the sinker helped Albert Abreu with his newfound success in the majors, while in May I examined how the sinker underlay Domingo Germán’s stretch of consistent results. Heck, even Walker Buehler talked with CC Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco about the role the sinker has played in the pitching-rich Dodgers’ successful campaign.

The cynic in me says that the Yankees turned to the sinker when their sticky stuff was taken away. Sinkers do not rely on high spin rate like their four-seam counterparts, so it makes sense that pitchers would turn to it after losing access to spin-enhancing substances.

On the other hand, the optimist in me says that Matt Blake identified the sinker as the league’s market inefficiency, with hitters finally adapting to be able to hit the elevated four-seamer. Whatever the case, he has gotten the Yankees pitching staff ahead of the curve, bucking the prevailing pitching philosophy in favor of an old-school-is-the-new-school approach.