José Berríos, Jake Odorizzi Could Be Extra Dominant in a Short Season
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsIf MLB has a 2020 season, it will be no more than half the usual length. If the owners get their way, there could be as few as 50 regular-season games. For the Twins, that could pay off, because their top two starting pitchers from last season fit the general profile of pitchers who have gotten extraordinarily hot over half-seasons in recent years.
As I’ve discussed at length this offseason, José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi each became more multidimensional and demonstrated improved command in 2019. However, the specific adjustment that most sets them apart from the majority of their brethren on big-league mounds was their relatively heavy use of sinkers. Berríos threw his sinker 23 percent of the time; Odorizzi threw his 20 percent of the time. Both were in the top 30 among all big-league starters with at least 150 innings pitched, in terms of sinker frequency.
Equally importantly, both hurlers had multiple other pitches on which they could comfortably rely. Odorizzi joined Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove as the only pitchers who used six different pitches at least five percent of the time. Berríos didn’t throw any pitch more than 32.2 percent of the time.
Historically, this is the kind of pitcher who can have a prolonged stretch in which he's truly unhittable: guys who have deep repertoires and good feel for their sinkers. The sinker is, somewhat counterintuitively, a “feel” pitch. The very reason why it’s gone out of fashion over the last half-decade is that, unlike the four-seam fastball, the sinker can’t be accurately evaluated by taking simple, quantitative readings. Neither spin rate nor sheer velocity determines the effectiveness of a sinker. In that way, the pitch isn’t exactly a fastball. Like off-speed offerings, sinkers are only as good as the command a pitcher exercises over them.
In the last 100 years, the three lowest ERAs in any half (before or after the All-Star Game) have all come during the last decade. In 2015, Jake Arrieta had a 0.75 ERA in the second half. (As Twins fans might remember, his dominance began even earlier, when he threw a shutout against Minnesota at Target Field on June 21.) Just last season, Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA in the second half. Back in 2012, it was the Braves’ Kris Medlen who took the world by storm down the stretch, with a 0.94 ERA.
All three of those pitchers used pinpoint command of brilliant sinkers to scale those heights. All three of them also had four-pitch mixes that made them unpredictable and helped them induce exceptionally weak contact during their hot streaks. The sinker helped each keep his pitch counts under control, left batters unprepared for their four-seam fastballs, and made those hitters more vulnerable to changes of speed.
The two most famous hot streaks in the history of pitching, of course, are Don Drysdale’s and Orel Hershiser’s streaks of nearly 60 innings without allowing a run. By coincidence (or not), both Drysdale and Hershiser were also sinkerballers with deep repertoires. Former Twins great Dean Chance had some of the best half-seasons of the 1960s, both with the Angels and with the Twins, and leaned toward a sinker. Johan Santana used the sinker as a fourth pitch, but still threw it at a representative rate during his reign of terror over the American League.
The value of being able to throw multiple flavors of fastball for strikes, while also having command of one or more great off-speed pitches, is obvious. However, these great performances speak to just how dominant a pitcher possessed of those skills can be.
Nonetheless, teams in the modern game are focused on training their pitchers to pair sliders with four-seam fastballs, and hardly ever encourage the development of repertoires as deep as those Wes Johnson cultivated from his charges in 2019. Hardly anyone is trying to create the type of pitcher who can be unbeatable for a few months.
The reasons are simple. Firstly, there’s value in simplicity. Teams can more easily train many pitchers to throw two or three pitches well than train even one or two to be four- or five-pitch masters. In the modern handling of pitching staffs, that quantity-over-quality approach has to govern most decisions.
Secondly, success with a four-seamer and slider can be more consistent, both because it’s less vulnerable to bad luck and because it’s easier to sustain success with those pitches. The four-seamer and slider typically induce more whiffs than even great sinkers, taking bad bounces off the table. The two pitches also require virtually no differences in throwing motion. On the other hand, the deep, sinker-centric arsenal requires the ability to make small changes from one pitch to the next; to maintain multiple release points without losing the ability to repeat one’s mechanics; and to keep the grip and feel of each pitch honed.
That’s why guys with four pitches and a good sinker can be exceptionally devastating, but why they’re still not popping up everywhere in our age of pitching optimization. In a shortened MLB season, however, the guys whose inconsistency is typically a weakness could turn into the best candidates to take home a (tainted) Cy Young Award. Moreover, the short season means it’s less likely that such a pitcher would either wear down or lose their feel during the postseason.
All of this assumes, of course, that the great feel the above-mentioned pitchers found during their legendary streaks can be found by pitchers laboring under unusual conditions, without the first half of the season to tinker and work through certain kinks. If this theory holds, though, the Twins could be better-positioned to catch the upside of a shortened season, at least when it comes to their starting pitching.
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