The Change: Sinkers, Injuries, and Defense

After all of our focus on injury rates due to sliders and curves, which were good efforts but produced small results, it’s interesting to consider sinker usage as a possible marker for injury. Bill James did so, famously, a while back. He thought that ground-ball pitchers were only good for a short while, and then injured.

The response was swift from the saber metric crowd. Bill Petti couldn’t find an effect. Russell Carlton looked into injury prediction and found the following as important to shoulders. You’ll notice that ground ball rate is not included.

“First, shoulder injuries. In order of strength of prediction, the best predictors of whether or not you will have a shoulder injury in the coming year are whether you had a shoulder injury last year, how many pitches you threw last year, whether you had a shoulder injury two years ago, how many extra batters you faced last year from the year before (with a greater increase meaning that you were less likely to be injured), and the two-strike foul rate (just barely).”

Still. Let’s look at the top sinkerballers of the last three years. Perhaps sinkers are the source of the issue, not straight ground ball rate. You can get a ground ball with your secondary stuff, after all, and there is something about the sinker that combines internal shoulder rotation and big velocity that might actually be mechanically risky.

Heavy Sinker Starters, Last Three Years
Name IP FT% DL Last Year? Age Projected IF RS RG Rank
Charlie Morton 402 59.1% 1 32 -19 136
Scott Kazmir 531 52.2% 0 32 5 35
Bartolo Colon 587 51.4% 0 42 -17 114
Henderson Alvarez 312 50.6% 2 25 -13 188
Joe Kelly 354 49.9% 1 27 2 123
Chris Sale 597 49.8% 1 27 -2 3
Doug Fister 475 44.3% 1 32 -5 141
Kyle Gibson 425 40.0% 0 28 -4 103
Tanner Roark 363 37.7% 0 29 -3 163
Cliff Lee 304 37.5% 1 36 n/a #N/A
Francisco Liriano 510 36.4% 0 32 -6 25
Dallas Keuchel 585 35.9% 0 28 -5 15
Wade Miley 597 34.7% 0 29 -2 84
Jeff Locke 466 34.7% 0 28 -6 129
Alfredo Simon 471 34.7% 0 35 n/a 183
Jordan Lyles 317 33.1% 1 25 6 193
Rick Porcello 553 33.0% 1 27 2 70
Aaron Harang 520 32.8% 1 38 n/a 187
Wily Peralta 490 31.9% 1 27 -8 131
David Price 655 31.9% 0 30 2 4
Dillon Gee 376 30.8% 1 30 8 #N/A
Gio Gonzalez 530 29.2% 0 30 -3 51
Erasmo Ramirez 311 28.2% 0 26 0 92
Jake Peavy 458 27.7% 1 35 23 88
Chris Archer 535 26.6% 0 27 0 17
Jon Niese 507 26.1% 0 29 -6 124
Tyson Ross 516 25.5% 0 29 -14 21
Andrew Cashner 483 25.1% 0 29 -14 52
Mark Buehrle 604 25.0% 0 37 n/a 153
Yovani Gallardo 557 24.7% 0 30 23 96
Projected IF RS = projected infield runs saved, averaged between ZiPS and Steamer projections.
(From August Fagerstrom article here)
RG Rank pulled from last RotoGraphs Rank here

It’s hard to escape the allure of the anecdote here. Henderson Alvarez is today’s Brandon Webb, only with a shorter grace period before the injuries set in. Charlie Morton and Scott Kazmir have dealt with their share of injuries. Doug Fister, Francisco Liriano, Jake Peavy… there’s enough fire here to think there’s smoke.

But research suggests the “DL Last Year” column is the most important one, so worry less about Dallas Keuchel and Erasmo Ramirez then Charlie Morton and Doug Fister. That probably fits with your world view, anyway.

But how about this. Sinkerballers allow more balls into play, and so are therefore more subject to the whims of the defense behind them. Sort the list for that projected infield defense (in reverse) for a second.

Whoo boy. Sell your shares of Charlie Morton, it looks like. That worm-burner left the relatively safe confines of Pittsburgh for a really bad infield defense in Philadelphia. Who knows what kind of role Bartolo Colon will have, and he won’t be depended on by many in real life or fantasy.

But look at that next duo in San Diego. They’ll be drafted high, they use sinkers a ton, and they’ll probably be in front of a bad infield defense. Will Alexei Ramirez make things better for Andrew Cashner or Tyson Ross? Maybe. His numbers and athleticism have been an impressive decline over the last two years, though. Yangervis Solarte is not a great fielder, Cory Spangenberg might be the only scratch defender on the infield, and Will Myers will be learning a new position. The backups are no better.

Both Ross and Cashner had bad infield defense numbers last year, and both have been tagged for injuries in the past. Even if the injury component of their projection is based only on smoke, the real-life bad defense behind them makes them slightly worse bets than you might expect.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Sinkers, Injuries, and Defense by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Chien-Ming Wang is another data point for heavy sinker use and shoulder problems (hip too iirc?).

Kevin Brown was also a heavy sinker guy.

Then there’s Derek Lowe who threw tons of sinkers indefinitely…..


And Bartolo Colon, and Tim Hudson, and so on. Pitchers get injured and it’s impossible to find any real correlation.