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He doesn’t throw the pitch often, but nothing good happens when he does.
All around baseball, pitchers are abandoning the sinker in favor of the four-seam fastball and the slider. Pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Gerrit Cole have elevated their game by getting rid of the pitch. Of course, there are exceptions. Sandy Alcantara has bucked trends and found success. Julio Teheran has done the same. Mike Soroka and Patrick Corbin have both utilized the sinker effectively. Then there’s Mike Leake whose sinker has been one of the worst pitches in baseball this season.
Among qualified starters, Mike Leake’s sinker ranks dead last in pitch values at -18.1 runs. Yu Darvish has the second worst sinker at -6.0 runs, so the difference between Leake and Darvish is as great as the difference between Darvish and Patrick Corbin who has the ninth-best sinker this season. Leake’s sinker is also tied with 2017 Jason Vargas’s for the sixth-worst sinker in the pitch-tracking era. Opponents are hitting .431 and slugging .831 against the pitch in 2019, and Leake has only induced a 3.5 percent swinging strike rate over his career. Those are some pretty terrible results.
Leake has never had an exceptional season, but he has been a solid middle of the rotation starter through his career. 2019 is shaping up to be the poorest season since his rookie year, though. His 5.15 FIP, 4.71 xFIP, and 6.74 DRA would all be career worsts. That’s perhaps not a surprise with his sinker getting hit like it has.
To be fair, Leake has diminished his sinker usage in 2019. It’s no longer his primary pitch. That distinction belongs to his cutter, but Leake is still mixing in his sinker about once every five pitches. The question remains: why does he continue to throw it at all?
In general, sinkers are supposed to do two things: get strikes and get ground balls. Leake’s sinker is still the pitch he can most reliably throw in the strike zone, but his ability to get ground balls with the pitch has taken a step back the past two seasons, and his changeup has been far more successful in that regard.
This season, Leake has used his sinker in two situations: to open an at bat and when he’s behind 2-0 or 3-0. Both are situations where he’s trying to get a strike and is relatively assured that the batter will be taking.
Having a pitch that you don’t want hitters to swing at seems self-defeating. Why not throw the cutter or the changeup or the slider instead? Leake made improvements to his cutter in 2017, and it’s been a solid pitch for him since. Opponents haven’t hit the cutter nearly as hard (.440 slugging against) and he gets a moderate amount of swings and misses (8.0 percent). The numbers on his changeup are comparable, and the slider is the one pitch that can be used to reliably get swinging strikes (15.6 percent swinging strike rate).
There isn’t an obvious reason to continue throwing the sinker. It’s already lost its status as Leake’s primary pitch, and next season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it gone from Leake’s repertoire entirely.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.