Sinkers, Change-ups and Platoon Splits

You’re a pitcher? You need a change-up.

That automatic response seems reasonable enough given the state of modern pitching analysis. You’ve probably heard it plenty of times about pitchers like Justin Masterson or Chris Archer. After all, the change breaks away from opposite-handed hitters and helps pitchers neutralize platoon threats.

But you know what? There’s another pitch that breaks away from opposite-handed hitters: the two-seamer or the sinker, whatever you want to call it. And yet lefties love sinkers from righties. So why do two pitches with similar movement have such different results?

It’s not that change-ups and sinkers are exactly the same, but arm-side run is a rare thing, and they share it. In fact, look across the league at the average horizontal movement, and you might notice something.

RHP Two-Seamer Cutter Splitter Sinker Slider Curve Change
X-Movement -8.2 0.6 -5.4 -8.5 2.6 5.6 -6.5

The sinker and the change-up are the only pitches that have arm-side run, really. The splitter is a change-up for all intents and purposes (often called a split-change), and the two-seamer and sinker are similar if not the same pitch.

And yet the platoon splits on the two pitches are fairly different. Lefties had a .767 OPS against sinkers from right-handers last year, while they only managed a .713 OPS against change-ups from right-handers last year. Here’s the long version, with the league average platoon split added so that you can see that these two pitches work differently in practice.

AVG OBP SLG OPS
Sinker v RHB 0.245 0.329 0.364 0.693
Sinker v LHB 0.258 0.363 0.404 0.767
League Ave v LHB 0.259 0.329 0.412 0.741
Change v RHB 0.231 0.314 0.380 0.694
Change v LHB 0.240 0.330 0.383 0.713

I thought I’d ask a few pitchers about the phenomenon.

Rick Porcello actually developed a curve ball last season because he saw that his sinker and change-up were so similar. Having two primary pitches with the same movement “just makes it easier for hitters to hang out over the plate and go the other way,” Porcello said before a game with the Athletics in May. “It just looks too much like the same thing all the time.” Developing the curveball gave him a different break, and a pitch that was 10 mph to 14 mph slower than his fastball (his change-up only comes in 6-8 mph slower).

Sean Doolittle has been dominant with one pitch, and he’s throwing the slider a bit more this season, but the A’s new closer would still like to throw a change-up. Yes, both pitches run away from the opposite hand (in Doolittle’s case, the righties), but there’s something different about the way batters see the change-up. They try to get out there with their bat, and then… “they run out of bat,” said Doolittle. The combination of speed and movement means that they can’t wait long enough, and there’s no contact to be made once the pitch gets to the plate.

Brandon McCarthy has long sought a change-up ever since he dropped his original change-piece and went over to a steady diet of sinkers. He thought the main difference was the change in speed. “A change-up is still a change-up — it’s just supposed to be not there, whether it’s missing completely or it’s just off the end.”

Could a pitcher just throw the two-seamer slower? McCarthy thought that his teammate Trevor Cahill does that with some success, and the velocity chart on his sinker does show an eight mph spread on the pitch. But that’s a singular skill, as McCarthy himself admitted. Maintaining similar arm speeds on different pitches is hard enough to do without actively trying to throw one of the pitches at two different speeds.

It’s obvious that change of speed is part of the equation, but not every change-up and fastball pairing features a large gap in velocity. Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg both own top-five change-ups, and their gaps (3.0 and 6.4 mph respectively) don’t fit the conventional wisdom that desires a ten-mph gap between the two pitches. Of course, Harry Pavlidis has shown us that hard, firm change-ups have their place (ground balls), but it goes to show that velocity doesn’t explain everything.

Brian Bannister says the y axis is a big part of the change-up’s success: “A two-seamer usually is a flatter spin-axis derivative of a pitcher’s standard four-seam fastball. A change-up can be a completely different pitch entirely.” But two-seamers are tough to throw effectively, Bannister adds. “Hitters like pitches with backspin because they want to hit the bottom half of the ball,” he says. “Very few pitchers who try to throw two-seamers are able to put the necessary sink on the ball to be successful at the major-league level. To most hitters, an average two-seamer is just a slower four-seamer. The pitcher doesn’t gain much of an advantage by throwing it because it only adds some lateral movement. However, almost all pitchers are eventually able to develop some form of change-up that reduces velocity, reduces spin, and/or adds random movement to the ball, and this can drive hitters crazy.”

To Bannister’s point, let’s look at the vertical movement for those same pitches from righties. That same table from above, revisited for the y axis.

RHP Two-Seamer Cutter Splitter Sinker Slider Curve Change
Y-Movement 6.3 6.1 2.9 4.3 1.4 -5.6 4.3

Another surprise. Change-ups, on average, have the same vertical movement as sinkers as well as similar horizontal movement.

Back to velocity, then? Even the average change-up goes 83.2 compared to today’s average fastball at 91.6.

Porcello felt the change-up’s excellence was about that difference, about timing. Thinking about hitters, the Tigers’ pitchers said that “all their timing comes off the fastball — you’re timed to hit the fastball.” And it’s no surprise there’s a bigger platoon split on the fastball, according to Porcello; “Overall, hitters hit fastballs better than any other pitches — but when they’re worried about your good fastball, they can’t sit on your offspeed stuff, because then they can eat you up with fastballs.”

Let’s add one pitch back into the equation that should help put all of this into focus. The four-seam fastball. The most-thrown pitch in baseball actually has six inches of arm-side run on average, meaning that the difference between a two-seamer and a four-seamer is maybe less than we assume.

That similarity, and perhaps the hitting approach that is timed to the fastball and doesn’t leave enough bat for a change-up that’s fading away from the lefty on the outside, seem to suggest that the change of speed — with the same arm speed — is the major separator between the two-seamer from the change-up.

To some extent, that’s surprising. After all, when you think of the best change-ups, you think of the darting, diving, off-the-table movement. But the (relative) number on the radar gun might be even more important, especially if you’re a righty pitching to a lefty.



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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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Cheech
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Cheech
1 year 11 months ago

I heart Bannister.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
1 year 11 months ago

So why do two pitches with similar movement have such different results?

There are some questions that simply don’t need a lot of data to answer. This is one of them.

A: One of them is slower than the other.

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas
1 year 11 months ago

Felix Hernandez says hello

Adam
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Adam
1 year 11 months ago

Felix says “Hola”. FTFY.

Bip
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Member
Bip
1 year 11 months ago

That doesn’t explain why one would have a strong normal platoon split and the other would have the biggest reverse split of any pitch. And even if that is the only reason, I’d kind of like to know why.

larry
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larry
1 year 11 months ago

on the y-axis movement chart, how is it possible that a curve and change move in opposite directions? Curve: -5.6 and Change: 4.3.

Eno Sarris
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Eno Sarris
1 year 11 months ago

It’s not opposite, no pitch actually rises. It’s just a relative scale, the curve drops the most.

larry
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larry
1 year 11 months ago

ok that makes a lot more sense. thanks

Bip
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Member
Bip
1 year 11 months ago

In a sense, a fastball/change actually does “rise”, in that they have actual lift that causes them to drop less than they would if subject to only gravity.

scruddet
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scruddet
1 year 11 months ago

Yeah, I could be wrong, but I think I read that the movement scale you see is what would happen if they ball were in a zero-gravity vacuum. Hence the rise on fastballs from the backspin put on the ball.

greenback
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greenback
1 year 11 months ago

I am not a pitcher, nor do I claim any expertise on the mechanics of pitching. But my understanding is that the mechanics for throwing sliders and for throwing two-seamers are similar. Basically if you can throw a slider, you can throw a two-seamer, and vice versa. Sliders generally are effective against same-side hitters because of the parallax effect, which is diminished against opposite-side hitters. So it’s not so much the pitch itself that makes the two-seamer less effective against opposite batters, as the overall repertoire that comes with that pitch.

Costanza
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Costanza
1 year 11 months ago

I pitched competitively, and don’t believe what you said is correct.

The mechanics for 2 seamers and sliders are similar in the same way that the mechanics of those pitches is similar to any other pitch. The difference is in the wrist angle set by the pitcher. For a slider, the hand is rotated (palm moving inward) about half the amount of a curve. Anything moving the other way, the hand rotates the opposite direction.

Adam
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Adam
1 year 11 months ago

I have also pitched competitively and you are correct. You can see this on slow motion replays or gifs of pitches. The hand moves outward on the finish as you said on fastballs, and on breaking pitches in moves inward.

larry
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larry
1 year 11 months ago

ive always thought that pitchers tend to be 4 seam/curve or 2 seam/slider guys. figured it was an arm angle issue, not a wrist/hand/grip issue. ptichers that throw more over the top are able to get on top of the curve, while pitchers that throw more 3/4 arm slot get more run on the 2 seam and better break on the slider.

again, this is all just from watching baseball and what ive heard, so take it with a grain or 2 of salt.

Adam
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Adam
1 year 11 months ago

@ Larry. I can’t reply to your reply. You are correct in terms of the arm slot and the usage breaking ball more or less. A lot of lower arm slot guys do throw sliders more often. The mechanics should be the same until the pitch is thrown. The subtle difference comes from the hand, wrist, and follow through.

Bip
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Member
Bip
1 year 11 months ago

Another non-pitcher pitching-enthusiast here to give my total non-expert opinion.

I’ve often heard that to throw a slider, you basically just want to throw it like a fastball with a different grip. The grip usually has your fingers together with more pressure on the pointer finger. This has a similar effect to turning your wrist inward: it causes your hand to come around the outside of the ball, pulling downward and creating a corkscrew type spin.

This seems to be quite different from the two-seam grip, which I think is like a regular fastball, except that you tend to release somewhat off the middle finger, meaning your hand comes inside the ball to an extent.

Feeding the Abscess
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Feeding the Abscess
1 year 11 months ago

Bip:

That’s a cutter, not a slider. Sliders have similar grips/finger placements to cutters, typically, but also involve wrist movement to enhance the spin on the ball.

Eno Sarris
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Eno Sarris
1 year 11 months ago

I think there’s more to be written here and it’s based on what you’re talking about. Look at what Porcello says — as a two-seam/change-up guy (his slider’s not great), all his stuff looked the same. It all faded away. Players were hanging out over the plate. So maybe a two-seamer or a change-up is more important to certain types of arsenals.

And I do know there are mechanics things involved here. In this piece on change up grips Gavin Floyd suggested that his closed-shoulder mechanics (good for his command and curve) did not lend themselves well to a good change-up.

Andy
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Andy
1 year 11 months ago

Change-ups are more likely secondary pitches whiles sinkers are more often primary pitches. If change-ups were thrown as often they might not enjoy as much success.

Eno Sarris
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Eno Sarris
1 year 11 months ago

Yeah I think Porcello hit on that a bit — fastballs are hit better than any other pitch. I can’t believe it’s true, but it’s probably true. ‘CHANGE” up

Grant
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Grant
1 year 11 months ago

This makes a lot of sense. Felix throws the 4th highest % of change ups (27.2) and the 19th fewest % of fastballs (48.7) so the change is not as much of a secondary pitch with him. Given the small ? in velocity and the frequency at which they are thrown, I wouldn’t think it would be all that effective. However, his slider and curve have to be a big bart of the success he has.

Other guys that throw a high % of changes and low % of fastballs are Liriano, Shields, de la Rosa, Danks, Kazmir, Stults, Weaver, and Cueto. There’s definitely a mixed bag of results there.

Grant
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Grant
1 year 11 months ago

In the case of this post, I guess ? equals the word change.

royalguy
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royalguy
1 year 4 months ago

Don’t forget one of those guys pitches in Colorado. I personally think that people and throw them more frequently will help them regardless of their fastball. I’d be curious to see how it fairs when he throws 0 fastballs. That would be a cool spring training test project for Shields, Felix, Kazmir, or Cueto….. Guys that are generally speaking really successful. There has to be a maximum efficiency somewhere.

LeeTro
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LeeTro
1 year 11 months ago

The speed is the reason for the varying performances of the pitch. When a sinker or changeup runs away from a hitter, he has to let the ball travel longer to get the barrel on it. Since the sinker is faster, it’s easier to let it travel and hit it up the middle or the other way. Doolittle came the closest to explaining this, talking about it being harder to let the changeup travel. The pitches with platoon advantages for pitchers are pitches that go hard in or soft away, an old baseball axiom that actually seems to be true.

Eno Sarris
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Eno Sarris
1 year 11 months ago

I think the answer has to be both. If a curve is 10-14 mph slower than a fastball, but breaks in on a lefty from a righty, they have a chance at hitting it even if they are geared up for a fastball. But if the change is that much slower than the fastball, AND moving away from them, then they screwed. We are agreeing here, but I disagree if you’re saying it’s simple. And I was surprised to see the sinker and change up movements were almost equal.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
1 year 11 months ago

It could definitely be the combination of the speed and the typical location it is thrown. A righty doesn’t typically throw a sinker low and outside to a lefty, hoping they will chase, whereas they will often throw a changeup so that it falls out of the low and outside portion of the zone, inducing a whiff. Why a sinker wouldn’t also be effective at this, I’m not totally sure.

scruddet
Member
scruddet
1 year 11 months ago

Focusing on movement and speed overlooks the essence of the CH. I think the true strength in your typical CH lies not in its movement or in its speed, but rather in its deception (obviously, outlier pitchers may have unique CHs that contradict that blanket statement). A standard CH should look exactly like a FB, but it should be somewhat slower. That’s why it’s a good idea for a pitcher who throws a lot of 2-seam FBs to also use a 2-seam CH, whereas a pitcher who throws a lot of 4-seam FBs should likewise utilize a 4-seam CH. You want the hitter looking at the exact same ball.

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