TORONTO – Over the past decade sinker usage across baseball has shrunk dramatically, from 22.4 per cent of all pitches in 2010 to just 14.8 per cent in 2019. The decline started slowly in 2015 and has steadily accelerated, dropping 2.3 per cent from last year to this one alone. The majority of those pitches have migrated over not to four-seamers, the usage of which dipped to 34.8 per cent in 2012 and up to 37.8 per cent this year, but to secondary offerings led by the slider (up 5.8 per cent), changeups (1.2 per cent) and curveballs (1 per cent).
The game then, in a relatively short period of time, has really changed, the current emphasis on velocity up in the zone with spin and break in the lower half making a traditional sinker-baller like T.J. Zeuch – a still coveted commodity when he was a first-rounder in 2016 – so intriguing.
As others chase whiff, he chases poor contact. As others throw up, he stays down. As others max effort their way for as long as they can, he seeks efficiency in every way possible.
"The sinker is a little bit of a dinosaur it seems like right now," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "People are definitely (emphasizing) the four-seamer, but he has such good sink. I think it’s his secondary stuff that has to be refined. He’s always going to have that sinker, he’s always going to have action. But controlling bat speed and locating secondary stuff for him is really important."
Zeuch showed bits of all that Tuesday night, when the Toronto Blue Jays eschewed an opener for his second big-league appearance and the 24-year-old right-hander generated seven groundouts over 4.1 innings of three-run ball in a 4-3 win over the Boston Red Sox.
While throwing 40 sinkers that averaged 91.8 m.p.h. and topped out at 94 among his 81 pitches, Zeuch also featured 15 sliders, 12 curveballs, nine changeups and, notably, five four-seamers, each of which was thrown well out of the zone.
Mixing in a few four-seamers was by design, something he recently started doing at triple-A Buffalo, and the Blue Jays are encouraging him to throw up more often, both with his four- and two-seamer, adding another portion of the strike zone to exploit.
"Normally if they just have to focus on the bottom part of the zone for me, that eliminates half or two-thirds of the zone, whereas if I can go up top with the four-seam every once in a while, it keeps them honest and changes their eye-level," explained Zeuch. "Obviously tonight I didn’t execute too well on those, the pitches were way too high out of the zone, they were more waste pitches than anything. Something I definitely want to correct and get better at."
Still, if Zeuch is going to be effective in the big-leagues it will be largely thanks to a sinker that typically runs in and down on right-handed hitters. The slider, when on, moves in the opposite direction while the changeup distorts timing. Done right, the pitches tunnel out in different directions.
"The sinker’s got depth and it’s got run," said catcher Reese McGuire, who continued to impress on both sides of the ball with a homer, single and walk. "The changeup has similar action so it’s a great pitch off the sinker because it’s coming out looking like it, probably more depth to it and it’s six, seven miles an hour slower. The slider does the opposite, so you’re playing that lane, you’ve got one pitch going this way and then the next pitch is going the other way off the same lane."
Now, throw in a four-seamer in the upper part of the zone and opposing hitter will have all kinds of things to worry about.
"He hasn’t had a lot of experience with it, but we’re going to do it a little bit here and there. If we can go up just enough …" Walker said, letting the thought trail off. "He’s learning, and he’s very open to it."
For now, though, Zeuch is still working on putting all the pieces together. His no-hitter late last month for Buffalo demonstrated how he effective he can be at generating poor contact, but against the Red Sox he surrendered 10 balls in play at 97.1 m.p.h. off the bat or harder.
Mookie Betts ambushed a first-pitch sinker to open the game and sent it off the foul pole in left field, the first of six hits off the right-hander, who also walked three batters while striking out only one. Only 12 of his 21 opening pitches went for strikes.
"Balls in the middle of the plate and advantage counts are unacceptable. Being behind guys way too often, and just not being in the zone and being where I need to be to have success," Zeuch said in a blunt analysis of his performance. "A lot of times I get into trouble when my fastball starts running out of the zone or tailing out of the zone, which it did tonight. It kind of tailed over the middle of the plate or out of the zone. Just taking an extra second to make sure my eyes are set on the right spot is the best thing I can do."
The best thing the Blue Jays can do is to keep giving Zeuch run, and not use an opener in front of him. By letting him start against the fourth most productive offence in the majors, they sought to test him and see how he fared against a meat-grinding lineup. He got three batters into a third time through the order before manager Charlie Montoyo came to get him, after back-to-back doubles by Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez tied the game 2-2.
Even when not at his best, he still managed to keep the game under control.
"For T.J. today, he started because routine is important and we want to see him start a major-league game and see how he goes about his business," explained Walker. "There are times, based on matchups, what’s best for the individual based on those matchups, it puts us in the best position to win. That’s the bottom line. And there is a fine line. Something we’re trying to balance right now is trying to understand a young starter’s mindset and make sure we’re doing what’s best for them, and making sure they’re on the same page and understand why we’re doing it."
All part of the process for a sinker-ball pitcher in these four-seam times.