How to throw a sinker
Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook tells how it is done
The knuckleball dances and twists like an over-caffeinated belly dancer. The splitter dives like an Olympian. The slider can be as elusive a pitch as any in baseball. And a blistering fastball gets the fans "oohing" and "aahing" with every large number on the radar gun.So that leaves us with the sinker. The poor, under-used, under-appreciated pitch that astounds no one but just keeps getting hitters out. "It's nothing extravagant," Indians pitcher and avowed sinker-thrower Jake Westbrook says. "It's a good pitch to have. A lot of pitchers would kill to make it move." In fact, the term "sinkerballer" evokes images of un-athletic, un-talented hurlers without the stuff to "man up" and blow a fastball by hitters. But where pitchers like Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson use their blazing fastballs to rack up strikeouts, Westbrook and sinkerballers like Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb use their sinkers to induce weak ground balls from opposing hitters. During his time in Cleveland, Westbrook has proven quite adept at keeping the ball down in the zone. Since becoming a regular in the Indians rotation in 2003, Westbrook had induced 1,278 ground-ball outs entering June 5. During the same timeframe, he has given up only 433 fly-ball outs. That's a ratio of nearly three ground balls for every fly ball. And groundballs rarely end up as home runs. It's not as superficially impressive. But to quote the great baseball philosopher Crash Davis, "Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some groundballs -- it's more democratic." So, how does Westbrook show his devotion to democracy? The beauty of the sinker lies in its simplicity; it's easy to throw with a little practice. "I hold it on top of the seams, and I just throw it," Westbrook says. OK, so it's a little more complicated than that. While Westbrook says to "hold it on top of the seams," he's demonstrating with a special red baseball he has in his locker. Westbrook places his index finger and middle finger on the top of the ball. Specifically, those two fingers are placed where the seams narrow on the top of the baseball. On the opposite side of the ball, where the seams narrow again, Westbrook places his thumb between the seams, on the smooth leather. "The key is to stay on top of it," Westbrook says. By that, Westbrook is referring to the wrist action on the pitch. Once you have your grip, the pitch is simple to throw. Just keep your hand and fingers on top of the ball until it's released. If a pitcher "cuts" the ball, or releases it so that the hand ends up on the side of the ball, the sinker doesn't do much sinking.
: : : This Edition: June 14, 2006 : : :
And because of how the sinker is gripped, friction is created when the ball is thrown. Friction is what makes the ball sink, but it's also what makes the pitch a few miles per hour slower than a normal fastball. And because of that lack of velocity, when the sinker doesn't sink, a baseball game can look like batting practice."When you elevate a sinker, it usually doesn't sink, obviously," Westbrook says. "You're probably getting underneath it. A good sinker is really just down in the zone. Even if it's in the middle of the plate, if it's sinking down, there's good chance they're going to hit the ball on the ground somewhere. To have a good sinker, you have to stay on top and keep it down in the zone." The sinker is an ideal pitch for younger hurlers. Its simplicity makes it an easy pitch to learn, and the way in which it is thrown puts little stress on young arms; there's not much twisting of the wrist, so there's little torque put on the elbow or shoulder. And because the pitch doesn't require much velocity to move down in the strike zone, young pitchers won't need to "muscle up" on the ball and potentially break down in their mechanics.
Andrew Bare is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.