Baseball, since its inception, has captured the imaginations of all who watch it. Like liquid the players move across the diamond shaped field with artistic purpose and intent. The game has an intangible quality made up of sights and sounds and smells that connect generations of Americans to this glorious past time. Legions of young boys have remarkably strong memories of their first day at the ball park. The warm air and cool breeze wafting the fresh smell of newly cut grass into the stands. The hot dogs and pretzels washed down with a small sip from their father’s cup of beer. But, it wasn’t until recently that I looked beyond the romance of the game and really became intrigued by the mechanics behind it. Especially with regard to pitching.
I think the old timers had it right. The mystery may have been solved in the 1950’s but the “sinker ball” is still in my mind a “gift from heaven.” Its deceptive nature marked by the sudden plunge from its trajectory as it moves toward home plate makes it one of my favorite pitches. To see it in action as it turns confident batters into unwitting punch lines brings a smile to my face.
My obsession with the pitch began in 2007. I became enamored with Cleveland Indians pitcher Fausto Carmona. He took over for the injured Cliff Lee and pitched his way onto the list of my favorite major league hurlers. In April, during what would become a 5 game win streak, I heard about a quote from Minnesota Twins starting center fielder Torii Hunter. “I can’t wait until we face normal pitchers. This guy’s sinker is practically unhittable.”
That’s when it hit me. There was something really interesting and unique about each pitcher and the types of pitches they excelled at. What really shocked me, after doing some research, was that some of my favorite pitchers used the sinker ball as their primary weapon. Guys like Chien-Ming Wang, Derek Lowe, Carlos Zambrano, and Roy Halladay all use this pitch as the preferred weapon in their arsenal. Like a moth to a flame I had been subconsciously drawn to their style of pitching.
But, what is the “sinker ball”?
It’s more or less a two seam fastball with significant downward movement. “A sinker…is a fastball that drops about 5-10 inches more than a typical fastball.” The result is a higher percentage of ground balls being thrown by a pitcher utilizing this pitch. This inherently forces the infielders to react and make plays on the field. Which, for baseball fans, adds a great deal of excitement to the game. Who doesn’t love watching a perfectly executed 6-4-3 double play?
Part of the beauty of the pitch is in its simplicity. “It’s nothing extravagant,” Jake Westbrook, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said in one interview. But, after watching him win 15 games in 2005 and 2006 we have to agree with him on one point. “It’s a good pitch to have.” Those who have mastered it I am sure would agree as their results on the mound attest to its effectiveness. The pitchers I mentioned combined for 84 wins in 2007.
So, next time you sit down on your couch to watch a baseball game. Pay attention to who’s on the mound. If you happen to catch an Indians game, take time to enjoy Fausto Carmona. Also, don’t be afraid to check out the others I have mentioned. See if you can catch the sinker ball in action. What was once a great mystery can now simply be enjoyed for what it is; a gift from heaven.
Andrew Bare, “How to throw a sinker: Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook tells how it is done”, MLB.com
John Walsh, “In Search of the Sinker”, The Hardball Times