How Discovering a Sinker Changed Everything for Marcus Stroman

Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman is inducing ground balls at an extreme rate thanks to his untraditional sinker grip.

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Apr 15 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A pitcher is always in search of deception, and this is part of Marcus Stroman's—he will not let me take a photo of his sinker grip. He won't even let me see it.

He laughs about this. He talks vaguely about the way he applies this finger and that, even gives a dubious little demo without a ball in his hand, but that's it. He says no one else on Earth grips a sinker the way he does. This, for Stroman, is a covert operation of the highest order. It is part of the Mystique of Marcus.

The previous day, Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker had spent 10 minutes with me, explaining how Stroman throws the sinker. Walker had a ball in his hand. I had one in mine. I tried to mimic the grip. Not quite, Walker said. Move your fingers a little more to the edge of those two seams. Pressure on the index finger, not so much on the middle finger. Then throw it with your fastball arm action.

My fastball arm action belonged to a previous century. If I tried to throw a sinker, it would sink at about 30 feet, owing to a force Isaac Newton discovered some years ago while watching an apple fall from a tree. Stroman's sinker arrives at 93 mph and starts to sink when it's practically on top of the batter.

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"It's a power sinker," says Mookie Betts, the Red Sox outfielder who froze on two sinkers when he led off against Stroman on April 8. "It's coming at 93, 95 miles an hour. For me, he's starting it in the other batter's box and it's coming back to me late. I can't even pull the trigger on it when he does that."

Stroman throws right-handed. Betts bats right-handed. A good sinker—sometimes called a two-seam fastball—darts down and into a right-handed batter.

"He's got real good late action, gets a lot of ground balls, pounds the strike zone," says Dustin Pedroia, who, like Betts, struck out on a Stroman changeup in that first inning after seeing nothing but sinkers. "When he's locating it down and away to a righty, it's tough for us to do much with it."

The trick, of course, is to make it go where you want it to go.

Stroman did that with aplomb in his first start against the Rays. He went eight innings and induced 15 ground-ball outs. In his second start, against Boston, his sinker command was erratic, and to compensate for too many dirt balls, he tried to elevate the pitch. That made it easier to hit, which the Red Sox did. Stroman was charged with five runs and failed to get through the sixth inning.

In that relatively short outing, he also threw 57 sinkers—the most he had ever thrown in a single start. The Red Sox were ready when Stroman elevated his favourite pitch.

A-Rod was one of many frustrated Yankees hitters who fell victim to Stroman's sinker. –Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Yankees on Thursday night, Stroman and Walker devised a varied menu—more curveballs and sliders, down and in to the Yankees' heavily left-handed lineup. Cutters and changeups, too. And sinkers, of course, but maybe not quite so many.

Except that if you believe the data at Brooks Baseball, he actually threw more sinkers—64—against the Yankees. This time, however, they went where he wanted them to go. So did his other pitches. It was the mix and the command that mattered.

***

Stroman likes to tell the story about how he discovered his sinker grip one day while chilling on a couch with a baseball in his hand. He'd always thrown a four-seam fastball, which tends to travel in a relatively straight line. He could get it up to 94 much of the time and, supplementing it with offspeed pitches, he got a lot of strikeouts. He'd always wanted a sinker but could never find a grip that worked.

"I was just playing with the ball one day and came across a grip that was across the seams," he says. "It's considered an untraditional sinker grip, but it felt really comfortable in my hand."

The story gathers steam as Stroman's familiar gusto comes in a rush.

"I throw it off my middle finger," he says. "I throw it different. I don't throw it like anybody else. It's pretty unique. I try not to show my finger grip. I just take the ball and I torque it. All my pitches are like this, though. It's super unique.

"I'm a big comfort guy. Basically, it comes down to whatever feels comfortable in my hand is how I throw it. You can't take this grip and teach it to someone. It's weird. If I show it to anybody, guys say, 'How do you do that?' But it's just the way my hands are built or the way my hands kind of manoeuvre. I have pretty flexible fingers."

And relatively small hands, Walker observes, which can make it tough for a pitcher. But there is magic in those small hands and flexible fingers.

"He's always looking to improve his game, which is a credit to him, not only with this particular pitch," Walker says. "He tinkers with grips. He's constantly fine-tuning. He's not afraid to make some adjustments. Not every pitcher is like that. There are some guys that find an arsenal and will run with it and make slight adjustments. He's not afraid to try something new, and that's why he's in the position he's in right now."

The position he's in right now, at age 24, is that of presumed ace of the Blue Jays' rotation, a fast-talking pop-star pitcher with his own clothing line, a part in a friend's rap video and a TV documentary on his life and times. Some fans lined up for six hours earlier this week when he did an autograph session in Toronto. Stroman and his smile are everywhere. And when he tries something new, whether it's rapping or recovering in phenomenal fashion from knee surgery, it always seems to work.

The always-smiling ace of the Blue Jays' pitching staff. –Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike many pitchers trying to refine a new pitch, Stroman was a quick study with the sinker. In 2014, he was still tinkering with it in the bullpen until catcher Dioner Navarro surprised him by calling it in his first start after the All-Star Game.

Then everything changed.

"I'm a completely different pitcher than I was for the first 23 and a half years of my life," says Stroman, who must have started pitching at a very tender age. "I was a four-seam guy who had trouble getting to the sixth, seventh, eighth innings. It would be five, six innings, high strikeouts, homers, fly-ball guy. And now I'm the complete opposite."

Now he aims to pitch to contact, and the sinker, when it's working, often induces weak contact. Indeed, in the seven regular-season starts since he came back from knee surgery last September, he has averaged 12 ground-ball outs. In his first start this year, he had 15.

His four-seam fastball, which he rarely throws now, required more precise command, especially for a pitcher like Stroman, who "lives on the corners," as Mookie Betts observed. The sinker allows him greater margin for error.

"It has more movement, it has more depth," Stroman says. "It looks like a strike longer and then at the last second it kind of dips off. I love it. It's a pitch that I'm going to pretty much live and die by."

He lived by it in his first start in Tampa Bay. He fell in love with it in his second start versus Boston, and couldn't command it consistently, and it cost him.

Now he would face the Yankees, with their seven left-handed batters and their renowned ability to wear down a pitcher with long at-bats.

***

Despite throwing all those sinkers, Stroman changed his tack against certain left-handed batters in the Boston game, especially when facing them the second and third times. A key at-bat came in the sixth with two on and one out. Travis Shaw, a left-handed hitter, had doubled on a sinker in his first at-bat and hit a long fly ball on a changeup in his second plate appearance. This time, Shaw saw only one sinker. Of the eight pitches he saw, six were sliders.

"By the fourth or fifth pitch," Shaw tells me, "I had a pretty good idea what he was trying to do. He was trying to get me to chase that slider down and in. He'd go away from it, then come right back to it. I thought I was seeing the ball pretty well off him all night. I felt he couldn't throw a heater by me in that at-bat. So I was sitting more on the slider, trying not to chase it because I had chased it earlier in the count. That slider did have some bite."

With the count full, Shaw barely fouled off the last slider he saw. Then Stroman missed with a sinker.

The walk loaded the bases. Stroman was done at 92 pitches. Jesse Chavez came in and gave up a grand slam to Brock Holt. The Jays lost 8-7.

***

The three-game series with the Yankees gave Russell Martin an arduous workout. Stroman and Aaron Sanchez both throw hellacious sinkers and curveballs, and Stroman has that groundhog of a slider. Martin, one of the game's top defensive catchers, put on a clinic, making one marvelous block after another on balls in the dirt.

Often, when Martin is into those acrobatics, his pitcher is baffling batters with pitches that are hard to lay off and harder to hit. At its best, Stroman's sinker fits that description.

Is Stroman morphing into an extreme ground-ball pitcher? –Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

"Some guys can sink the ball to both sides of the plate," Martin says. "Some guys are arm-side sinker guys. Stro? He sinks it wherever he wants. He definitely has a really good sinker, but he's more than a sinkerballer. He's got a good changeup, he's got a good cutter, he's got a good curveball, he's got a good slider. When you add that sinker into the mix, it makes for a tough at-bat."

The Yankees can testify to that. Except for one ragged inning, Stroman mixed his pitches masterfully. And after the Blue Jays took the lead in the fifth, he seemed to nudge the Yankees' batters into uncommon impatience, relying more heavily on the sinker than he had earlier. Entering the sixth inning at 85 pitches, he retired them in order on five pitches in the sixth, seven in the seventh and nine in the eighth.

He executed the plan. And the plan, he said, still revolved around the sinker. Through three starts, his ground-ball rate of 65.2 percent is tied for the third highest among qualified starting pitchers.

"I found a better feel for my spinning pitches," he said after limiting the Yankees to three singles over eight innings in the Jays' 4-2 win. "My curveball and slider were very good, and so was my sinker. I felt like I was locating my sinker. I feel like when I'm locating my sinker, everything else kind of plays off that pitch. And I think I was just down more in the zone today than I was last game, and the results kind of showed."

His performance reflected the ideal he described in one of our interviews. He struck out only three but he worked deep into the game. He recorded 17 outs on ground balls. He threw 34 pitches in the fourth inning, but after that he was almost astonishingly efficient.

He used six different pitches. But don't bother asking how he throws them.

"I torque the ball in a really weird way in my hands in all my grips," he says. "All my grips are untraditional. None of them are how you're supposed to throw pitches."

So far, untraditional seems to serve Marcus Stroman well, on and off the mound.