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Corey Kluber should ditch his sinker

Whenever Corey Kluber returns to the mound, he'd be better off without his sinker

Atlanta Braves v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Over at FanGraphs, Ben Clemens furthered our collective knowledge on why sinkers are bad. In short, Clemens deduced that the advantages of sinkers put to play are less than we thought, while they incur more damage than four-seamers when put in the air, and also lead to fewer whiffs. The pitch also does not tunnel with other offerings as well as the four-seamer.

Corey Kluber, a sinkerballer, has seen his HR/9 tick up in the years since the ball has been juiced, and hitters have begun capitalizing. Kluber’s peripherals, outside of the small sample size before a freak injury this season, have still remained stable despite this.

The 33-year-old is very routine oriented, and does not seem as open to experiment as a Trevor Bauer. But we know now that sinkers are bad, and in The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik detail how the Houston Astros have found success essentially limiting sinkers as a philosophy.

Prior to his injury, Kluber was actually throwing fewer sinkers than any season prior, the first season yet where the pitch was not his primary offering. Still, the righty’s numbers (albeit in the small sample) are worse than years prior. What gives?

Brook’s Baseball

To be fair, Kluber’s four-seamer was getting bopped early on, as well. It just turns out that the two-time Cy Young winner is still falling victim to what Clemens’ research confirmed. All things equal, the sinker has consistently been hit harder than the four-seamer for the past three years.

Logically, thinning out one’s repertoire would not start with the pitch they rely on most. Repeating pitches is not a big part of Kluber’s approach, seemingly making a deep arsenal more important.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Kluber tunneled his sinker with his cutter (meaning sinker first, then cutter second) 145 times in 2018. That pitcher-tunnel combo tied for 487th last season, on a list that features repeated pitches (FA-FA, SI-SI, etc.) 97 of the top 100 occurrences, including the top 62.

Kluber’s second- and third-most used combos? Sinker-slider (144 times) and cutter-sinker (143).

By FanGraphs’ pitch values, the sinker does not play well individually, never carrying a positive weight over a full season (anywhere between -6.4 to -8.8 in a calendar year since 2014).

On the contrary, Kluber’s cutter is the best in baseball among starters since 2014, sitting at a weighted value of 74.4, ahead of Madison Bumgarner’s 61.0. Kenley Jansen’s cutter leads all pitchers at 75.5.

Kluber’s slider is also the best in baseball since 2014, with a weight of 120.4, a full 20 points ahead of Clayton Kershaw’s.

Independently, one would think that because Kluber’s two pitches most paired with his sinker are two of the best pitches in baseball, then perhaps that sinker is pretty important itself. Even more so when considering that he often times leads with the sinker.

Now comes the deep dive into some tunneling info. If you want larger primer, PitcherList’s Mike the Roto Cop explains in detail.

In short, for an effective tunnel, a pitcher wants a smaller release differential (RelDist), pre-tunnel max distance (PreMax), and pre-tunnel max time (PreMaxTime), with a large Plate PreMax Ratio (PlatePreRatio).

Here are some 2018 numbers from Kluber, sorted by that Plate PreMax Ratio, or the difference in location based on movement after the hitter’s decision making point.

Corey Kluber pitch tunneling in 2018

1st Pitch Type 2nd Pitch Type Hitter handedness COUNT RelDist PreMax PreMaxTime PlateDist FTimeDiff PlatePreRatio
1st Pitch Type 2nd Pitch Type Hitter handedness COUNT RelDist PreMax PreMaxTime PlateDist FTimeDiff PlatePreRatio
SL FA L 30 2.56 1.19 0.207 20.65 0.0428 17.3
FA SL L 23 2.36 1.27 0.174 20.4 0.0385 16
FA SL R 40 2.22 1.73 0.155 27.05 0.0395 15.7
SL FA R 33 2.27 1.43 0.194 22.22 0.0394 15.5
SI SL L 66 1.72 1.42 0.161 19.53 0.0399 13.8
FA FC L 38 1.89 1.52 0.159 19.37 0.0136 12.8
SL SI L 43 1.86 1.72 0.202 21.43 0.0428 12.5
FC FA R 24 2.36 1.5 0.169 18.33 0.0149 12.3
FC SI R 124 1.63 1.38 0.172 17.05 0.0154 12.3
FC SL L 61 1.35 1.53 0.156 18.37 0.026 12
SL FC R 68 1.39 1.42 0.182 16.95 0.0254 12
MLB AVERAGE - - - 2.6 1.54 0.169 18.2 0.026 11.9
FC FA L 30 2.1 1.34 0.17 15.83 0.0148 11.9
FA FC R 18 1.86 1.76 0.155 20.72 0.0164 11.8
FC SI L 143 1.47 1.48 0.175 17.42 0.0161 11.8
SL FC L 56 1.49 1.54 0.184 17.85 0.0284 11.6
SI FC L 145 1.42 1.61 0.157 18.48 0.0127 11.5
SI SI R 118 1.45 1.39 0.157 15.71 0.0031 11.3
SI SI L 58 1.41 1.44 0.157 16.32 0.0027 11.3
SI FA L 16 1.51 1.82 0.155 20.32 0.0021 11.2
FC FC L 84 1.36 1.4 0.157 15.71 0.0033 11.2
SI FA R 32 1.97 1.64 0.155 18.24 0.0027 11.1
FA SI R 31 1.59 1.62 0.157 17.92 0.0028 11.1
FA SI L 20 1.8 1.59 0.156 17.39 0.0031 11
SL SI R 106 2.01 1.86 0.201 19.98 0.0417 10.8
FC FC R 58 1.08 1.31 0.157 13.86 0.0037 10.6
SI FC R 125 1.52 1.56 0.156 16.4 0.0138 10.5
SI SL R 144 1.85 1.71 0.158 18.06 0.0396 10.5
SL SL R 85 1.46 1.55 0.158 16.12 0.0041 10.4
Sorted by PlatePreRatio BaseballProspectus

Pretty quickly we can see that, using that PlatePreRatio as a catch-all, the fastball-slider pairings are the most devastating. We can also see that most of the tunnels at or below league average are used most often, and contain sinkers.

If not over-committing to just the the single metric, Kluber’s four-seamer still wins out. The goal is to have the PreMaxTime as close to .150 as possible, and aside from fastball-sinker tunnels, the fastball-slider and fastball-cutter combos separate further in flight.

The sample sizes can likely explain the difference between the two pitches to some point. But given what we now know about the damage done to each pitch, respectively, it seems clear where a shift may need to happen.

Kluber’s four-seamer has never been overpowering, and it has dropped in velocity the older he has gotten. The same can also be said for the sinker.

Neither has been more than a setup pitch in his career, though the latter probably contributes a bit to the 33-year-old’s 44.7% groundball rate. However, as Clemens noted, sinkers do not generate more groundballs to the point where they make up their contact disadvantage. That can be seen in Kluber’s rising HR/FB ratio.

Kluber is a strikeout pitcher, and he makes the difference with the cutter, slider and changeup. There is essentially no reason to throw the sinker instead of the four-seamer any longer.

We have enough statistical and anecdotal evidence to show why the change should be made immediately. The two-time Cy Young winner will have plenty of time to prepare after restarting bullpens on Wednesday.

As time continues to catch up to Kluber, perhaps somebody will insist he leave the sinkers in the past.