He’s a lefty. He’s a little taller than six feet, with an overhand delivery. He used to be a pretty mediocre pitcher, but suddenly he turned a corner. He throws one pitch — a sinker — and he knows how to use it. I didn’t say a name, but he popped into your head… didn’t he?
Okay, that intro sucked. Let me start again.
You probably know Zach Britton’s story by now; he tried to be a starter for the Orioles, he failed (as most O’s starters do), and he turned into a lights-out closer by focusing on his deadly sinker. The pitch is truly unlike any other — I’ll quote an old Jeff Sullivan piece here:
There is no perfect comp out there for Britton’s sinker. … There are similar sinkers in terms of velocity and movement, but where Britton stands out is his vertical release point, which is almost seven feet off the ground. So Britton is throwing on a more downward plane, exaggerating the movement and making it all the harder to see the ball and put it in the air. … It’s an extreme version of an extreme pitch, which is why Britton can use it almost exclusively, and succeed.
Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2014, Britton has thrown his sinker 91.4 percent of the time. It has an absurd 78.7 percent ground ball rate, which brings us to this leaderboard:
Ground ball rate leaders — 2014-17
That’s pretty crazy! Brad Ziegler is 10 percentage points behind Britton, and Andrew Chafin’s 57.1 percent ground ball rate — which ranks 29th — is 9.9 percentage points behind Ziegler. No one gets grounders like Britton, and not many can match his 1.36 ERA and 2.42 FIP.
2017 has been a little bumpy for Britton, though. While he’s notched a 1.00 ERA, his strikeout rate (18.0 percent) and walk rate (10.3 percent) are each the worst of his bullpen career. And he’s worked just nine innings the whole year, with a forearm strain that just won’t go away. In his absence, another pitcher has emerged; he’s not quite as great as Britton, except for — well, I’ll just show you the table:
Ground ball rate leaders — 2017
|1||Scott Alexander||21.2||78.9 %|
|2||Pedro Strop||22.2||70.2 %|
|3||Alex Wood||53.2||69.2 %|
|4||Brad Ziegler||27.1||68.6 %|
|5||Dallas Keuchel||75.2||67.4 %|
|6||Alex Claudio||31.1||67.0 %|
|7||Luis Perdomo||61.0||65.4 %|
|8||Felipe Rivero||34.2||63.9 %|
|9||Jared Hughes||27.0||63.3 %|
|10||Lance McCullers||76.2||63.0 %|
Scott Alexander, prior to 2017, was another nameless middle reliever with 25 innings, a 3.60 ERA and a 3.46 FIP to his name. This season, however, has been another story — he’s lowered his ERA to 1.66 and his FIP to 2.99, supporting his elite ground ball rate with a surplus of strikeouts (21.0 percent) and a paucity of walks (7.4 percent).
How has he done this? A picture’s worth a thousand words:
This season, Alexander has thrown his sinker — wait for it — 93.7 percent of the time. He’s thrown a total of 17 non-sinkers, in a total of 14 appearances, so a little more than one per game. As with Britton, hitters facing Alexander know exactly what they’ll see.
And like Baltimore’s closer, the Royals reliever has kept hitters guessing despite that predictability. This year, Alexander’s sinker has gone for a strike 66.7 percent of the time, and a whiff 14.3 percent of the time. Britton’s sinker, from 2014 to now, has a 66.4 percent strike rate and 15.5 percent whiff rate. While Alexander’s strikeout and walk rates don’t really stand out, he could see some further improvement in those regards, which would make him an absolute nightmare for opponents.
Alexander’s sinker doesn’t really look like Britton’s. The latter has averaged 96.3 mph this year, which ranks eighth in the majors (and is first among left-handers by a massive amount). The former checks in at 93.0 mph, which places 71st in that sample. But where Britton brings the heat, Alexander rolls with, well, the sink. Only 12 other pitchers have gotten more drop on their sinkers than Alexander. With a diving, darting fastball, Alexander has seen the same success as Britton has with his power sinker.
A Britton-esque arsenal isn’t the only thing different about Alexander. Finding out that he has diabetes, and altering his diet in turn, helped him turn around his 2016; without that hampering him, he’s obviously been much more able to focus on pitching. That focus seemed to manifest itself in the form of a tweak to his pitch mix, which has taken this southpaw from anonymity to greatness.
Scott Alexander results — 2017
This is the ideal pitching line. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.
Editor’s note: Ryan has been fired for unacceptable use of memes. On behalf of Beyond the Box Score and the SB Nation community, we apologize.
Ryan Romano was the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and his former employers.