The Dodgers aren’t reinventing the sinker, but pitchers are harnessing its power

No one in baseball throws the elevated four-seam fastball better than Tyler Glasnow.

The Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander ranks first in Baseball Savant’s Pitch Run Values on fastballs in the upper part of the strike zone. Batters entered Glasnow’s start Tuesday hitting just .143 against it and swinging and missing close to a third of the time they took a hack.

High heat has always been his calling card. But in 2024, even that elite skill is no longer enough.

“The hitters,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said, “are so good now.”

That means everyone should be open to adjusting, even one of the best in the game.

So when McGuiness, pitching coach Mark Prior and the Dodgers’ pitching brain trust approached Glasnow, their new acquisition, this winter about throwing a sinker, it wasn’t because his fastball wasn’t good enough. Rather, it was to help it play even better. They had long noticed that everything Glasnow threw — even sometimes his four-seam fastball — would move from right to left, to Glasnow’s glove side.

Throwing a sinker, which “tails” instead of cutting, gave him something going in the other direction to change the hitter’s perspective. Glasnow has thrown his sinker more than at any time since he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017 — and leads the majors in strikeouts as part of his terrific start.

Sinkers have entered the mix for several of the other most integral arms in the Dodgers organization, from the majors on down. Gavin Stone has thrived with it, continuing his breakout campaign with seven scoreless innings in New York on Tuesday. Yoshinobu Yamamoto has started mixing in the pitch as he’s worked through his inconsistent four-seam fastball command. Ryan Yarbrough has enhanced his horizontal-centric arsenal by finally finding a two-seam grip that works for him.

The Dodgers aren’t ditching what’s worked; all but four teams throw the sinker more often than they do. And yet, by weighted on-base average the Dodgers’ sinkers are the third-most effective in the game.

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“From a pitching standpoint, it is how do we create different looks?” Prior said. “How do we create doubt in a hitter’s mind? So that it’s not so predictable.”

Preaching sinkers like they did with Glasnow was something the Dodgers had done a couple of years ago with Walker Buehler, Prior said. Rather than key in on everything glove side — into the left-handed hitter, away to the right-handed hitter — this, at least, allows a little bit of variance.

A similar philosophy came into play amid Evan Phillips’ breakout campaign two summers ago. The Dodgers found something with their closer, who was emphasizing his sweeper more often to attack hitters to his glove side. They added a cutter to his repertoire, as well, to keep left-handed hitters at bay. With everything seemingly going in one direction, the sinker went the opposite way.

The Dodgers haven’t bucked analytically minded convention regarding high heat. They entered Tuesday with 14.4 percent of their total pitches being four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone, fifth-most in baseball. It remains an effective attack plan, so they aren’t reinventing the wheel.

The Dodgers are simply adding a couple of tweaks to play off of it. Some of it is individual-based. Some of it is adapting back to hitters who have started to get better at hitting the elevated fastball.

Few pitchers have benefited more than Yarbrough, who has a 2.97 ERA through 36 1/3 innings — everything he throws is going to move from side to side in some fashion.

As the 32-year-old swingman explained his attack plan, he pointed to Glasnow.

He’s watched the tall right-hander dating back to their years together with the Tampa Bay Rays; Glasnow’s pitch map largely is a tall, slim rectangle that essentially attacks up and down. Yarbrough took that imaginary rectangle and rotated it.

“I’m basically just flipped, turn it like 90 degrees,” Yarbrough said.

His fastball is not built to blow by hitters at the top of the strike zone. Yarbrough’s path to success is through deception and soft contact, playing off his fastball with a slow, sweeping breaking ball. So finding a fastball that also worked side-to-side into left-handed hitters and away to righties was always logical.

For years, he sought a grip that worked, to no avail. It would either play well in catch play or in bullpens, but never both. Then Prior and McGuiness noticed that his delivery varied slightly in each context. They settled on something that clicked. And now, Yarbrough’s sinker has supplanted his four-seamer as his most-used fastball.

“It’s been great to have another option,” Yarbrough said.

Not all sinkers are created equal. Some move more like the alternate descriptor, like a two-seam fastball that runs arm-side. Others fall off the table and drop like a bowling ball to force contact into the dirt.

Yarbrough’s sinker profile plays differently than that of Blake Treinen’s — “I mean the depth on that thing is disgusting,” Prior said of Treinen’s version, and same of that of Brusdar Graterol (who has missed the entire season to date due to shoulder issue and hasn’t contributed to the sinker totals).

But, in seeking an edge, the pitch has given several Dodgers something different.

Last summer, after the worst outing of his professional career and third consecutive disappointing start in the major leagues, Stone listened to a suggestion about taking something old and making it new.

The Dodgers pitching prospect heard the club’s pitching leadership out as the staff laid out something of a drastic overhaul. First, they told Stone he had been tipping his pitches. The right-hander’s mechanics had been off all season. Hitters could gear up and crush his fastball because they knew to wait out his fluttering changeups outside the strike zone.

So, they got to work with Stone back in the minors. The easiest Band-Aid the Dodgers could apply was adding to Stone’s repertoire. They gave him a cutter that played better than his slider.

And then they asked him about a sinker.

Stone had thrown one in college. Like several talented young arms throughout baseball playing for analytically inclined clubs, he had geared much of his focus on four-seam fastballs that could live at the top of the strike zone with “ride” and the ability to miss bats.

A year later, Stone corrected his mechanics. After a heavy diet of Chipotle this winter, he’s bulked up and added mass that’s helped replenish some of his fastball velocity. He’s up nearly a whole mile per hour from the 94 mph he averaged a season ago, topping out at 96.6 mph with his sinker on Tuesday night.

And now Stone is throwing his sinker as his preferred fastball option and having a run of success in the Dodgers’ rotation.

Stone has been at his best, manager Dave Roberts said recently, when he executes the “low dart” — a sinker at the knees that his changeup plays off of to induce soft contact.

The Dodgers aren’t bringing back the sinker as their overarching philosophy. But it’s proved to be an ideal enhancement, even for pitchers who throw high velocity above the belt.

“I think hitters are not really fazed by that,” Prior said. “You have to really have an elite four-seam fastball for it to have that kind of play within the strike zone.”

Stone’s fastball, for example, played well in the minors. But in the small sample in the big leagues, it got crushed. Opposing batters hit .552 off his four-seamer in a limited sample, with an unsightly .966 slugging percentage. So they pivoted.

And not for the last time. For the Dodgers, it appears sinkers will remain on the rise.

“Talk about tunneling and whatnot, Lance Lynn made a whole career out of it, Bartolo (Colon),” McGuiness said. “just matching up the fastball profiles and just letting them kind of shotgun blast in the zone.”

It’s not new. But it’s different enough.

(Photo of Tyler Glasnow: Adam Hunger / Getty Images)

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