TNick Sandlin is a joy to watch pitch. Some things about this year’s Cleveland baseball team are not so much fun, but Nick Sandlin is firmly on the good side of the line.
Why do I enjoy watching Sandlin pitch so much? Let me count the ways.
As a kid playing baseball, I had my sidearm tendencies hammered out of me and I’m still resentful of it. I was accurate enough and throwing from the side felt better. But my coaches wanted my throwing motion to “look right” so I went overhand, fast forward twenty-ish years and I have a partially torn rotator cuff. I’m not saying it’s my coaches’ fault but I’m not saying it’s not.
Anyway, Sandlin slings the ball the way I did in my head. He whips his arm out like a switchblade and lashes it toward third base. Not too many players deliver the ball the way Sandlin does, and it feels like a throwback. Pitchers like Walter Johnson and Dizzy Dean had Hall-of-Fame careers throwing from the side.
But Sandlin isn’t just a one-location sidearmer, he’s got a distinct release point for each of his pitches. His fastball and slider have a full five inches difference in release point. Because of the sidearm action, Sandlin’s fastball has the illusion of greater rise and moves in on batters, like this:
The slider comes in lower and dives away from right-handed hitters, with the 21st most horizontal movement among pitchers with 10 or more innings pitched, like this:
The different arm angles are big enough to be perceptible, but not so much as to allow hitters to pinpoint which pitch is coming. Along with those different arm angles is the fact that all Sandlin’s pitches seem to move on roughly the same plane, which seems only to make him more mysterious to batters. That his slider has the 31st most active spin among MLB pitchers this year is pretty impressive, too.
Likewise, Sandlin has three buckets of velocity that he lives in. His fastball is right around league average at 94 mph, but his slider is well below league average and sits about 16 ticks slower at 78 mph. In addition, he’s peppered in a split-finger change-of-pace six times this season and that pitch sits right in between the other pitches at an average of 87 mph.
I’ve touched briefly on location, but consider locations in the context of angle, spin, and velocity. Sandlin is throwing from different arm slots, so batters have to guess where his hand will appear as he enters his motion and they have to guess a spot that is a full foot lower than what they’ve seen from, for example, Shane Bieber. Once they pick up the ball, they have to try and identify the spin, and both the fastball and slider (which represent 97% of his pitches so far) basically spin around the same axis. With a 93.8 mph fastball released 6.4 feet in front of home plate, batters have 0.438 seconds before the ball crosses home plate to determine all this information, but while they’re making those calculations the ball is moving like a caffeinated toddler. Check out the gif in this tweet to better appreciate how much movement Sandlin has with his arsenal:
It’s a miracle major league hitters ever get a hit, but against Sandlin it is something more. His unique arm angle and how well his pitches play off each other are downright startling, which is probably why he’s in the 95th percentile for limiting maximum exit velocity.
Eleven innings into his rookie campaign and Sandlin has already created 0.3 fWAR. He may not generate electricity like Emmanuel Clase or explode with passion like James Karinchak, but by FIP- (53, 47% better than league average) he’s the best pitcher in the Cleveland pen and a top-20 reliever in all of baseball. I’d have more stats to report, but he literally hasn’t allowed enough balls in play to rank on Baseball Savant leaderboards. Sandlin is proving he has a role in the Cleveland bullpen and providing priceless protection for a rickety rotation, and that’s giving me joy.