Lucas Sims was one of Cincinnati’s best pitchers in 2020, and his slider was a big reason why. The Reds right-hander threw the firmer of his two breaking balls 34.1% of the time while registering a 2.45 ERA, and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, over 20 relief appearances. Per StatCast, opposing batters slugged a paltry .133 against the pitch. The story behind it reflects the vagaries of the art of pitching itself.
“I learned my slider from from Sonny [Gray], but it’s Sonny’s curveball grip,” explained Sims. “I was toying around with it one day — this was in 2019 — and when I threw it, it swept a lot. His is a downer curveball. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a little bit different.’”
So was the manner in which he unveiled the pitch. Sims spent a few days experimenting with Gray’s grip, but only on flat ground. It wasn’t until he toed the rubber in a game that he delivered one off a mound. The Reds were playing Pittsburgh, and Starling Marté at the plate with a two-strike count.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I might as well try it,’” recalled Sims, whom the Reds had acquired from Atlanta the previous year as part of the Adam Duvall deal. “I didn’t want to hang it — I wanted to make sure it didn’t get deposited — and ended up spiking it in the [left-handed] batter’s box. But then I threw another one and got a swing-and-a-miss. I decided, ‘All right, this is going to be a new pitch for me.”
Which brings us to the offering itself. Is Sims throwing a slider with Gray’s curveball grip, or does Gray throw a curveball with a slider grip?
“I don’t know,” the righty responded when asked that question. “I just know that his is like a top-spinning two-seam, and I don’t get my wrist as far, so I don’t get that top spin. Mine is more side spin — a lot more side spin — and that’s why it goes horizontal while his gets that sharp downward movement. He also has a little bit higher [arm] slot than I do.”
A conversation with Caleb Cotham — Cincinnati’s assistant pitching coach at the time — played in a role in the grip switch. Gray had told Sims that a lot of quality breaking balls are thrown that way, and finding that somewhat curious he approached Cotham for guidance.
“I told Caleb, ’Sonny said he throws his breaking ball like this, and that sounds kind of weird,’” Sims recalled. “Caleb was like, ‘No, no, no; it’s true.’ I was ‘Dang. All right.’ Then he started rattling off a bunch of guys who throw really good breaking balls like that. So I toyed around with it, and all of a sudden I had my slider grip.”
Which brings us back, yet again, to pitch labeling. Would most of the pitchers Cotham that named be characterized as ‘curveball guys’ or ‘slider guys’?
Before we get to that, it bears noting that Sims throws both. Unlike his slider, his curveball breaks down rather than horizontally, albeit with surprisingly similar velocity. His hook averaged 81.2 mph last year, compared to 83 mph for his heater. While the differential is scant, what matters to him is that the movement differs, which it routinely does. Blending typically isn’t an issue. (Regarding pitch-type classification, Sims feels the percentages on his player page — 34.1% sliders, 16.4% curveballs — are fairly accurate.)
“Everyone wants to to group pitches: one is a curveball, and one is a slider,” said Sims. “I think there are really just a few people who have true curveballs and true sliders. I’ve always been able to shape them differently, and in my head they’re two separate pitches, but at the end of the day, they’re kind of just breaking balls. One just goes down a little bit more, and the other sweeps. I don’t know if I would classify my slider as a standard slider. There are a lot of different ways to throw breaking pitches.”
For instance, a slider with Sonny Gray’s curveball grip.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
José Ramírez is quietly one of the best players in baseball. Playing in small-market Cleveland where he was overshadowed by the charismatic Francisco Lindor, the 28-year-old third baseman has a 133 wRC+ and 26.0 WAR over the past five seasons. He’s won three Silver Sluggers and earned a pair of All-Star honors.
Terry Francona disagreed with me when I suggested during his Winter Meetings media session that Ramirez is underrated.
“He came in second in the MVP voting, so that’s pretty good attention,” retorted the Indians manager. “He’s a really good baseball player. I’m at a little bit of a loss, because I don’t pick up every national paper to see how a guy is being perceived. Maybe I take for granted how good he is because I see him every day? But he’s a really good baseball player, and I think anybody in the game, and anybody on this call, knows that.”
Francona had a point, but at the same time, I don’t think Ramirez gets nearly enough respect. Baseball nerds recognize his talent, but do most casual fans? I don’t think so.
“This is going to end up proving how underrated Story is, isn’t it?”
That’s exactly what happened. Lindor won the poll handily, garnering 76.7% of the 500-plus votes that were cast. Was that a reasonable result? Here is a snapshot of their 2018-2020 seasons, a span in which each played 361 games:
Lindor: 414 hits, .354 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 26 DRS, 13.7 WAR.
Story: 415 hits, .380 wOBA, 123 wRC+, 20 DRS, 13.4 WAR.
Lindor is almost exactly a year younger than Story. Whether he’s the better player is strictly a matter of opinion.
Ted Williams has the highest OBP (.482) among position players to appear in at least 20 games and play his entire career in the modern era. Another former Red Sox player ranks second. Who is it? (Hint: he played in the 1970s.)
The answer can be found below.
Former Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge will reportedly join the coaching staff at the University of Michigan. A veteran of 13 big-league seasons, Inge last played in 2013.
George Spriggs, an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals from 1965-1970, died last month at age 83. Spriggs played in the Negro Leagues prior to signing with the Pirates.
The 2021 SABR Analytics Conference will be held virtually from March 11-14, 2021. Featured speakers already confirmed include Glenn Fleisig, the Research Director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, and Ben Hansen, a Senior Biomechanical Engineer with the Chicago White Sox. Information can be found here.
The answer to the quiz is Buddy Hunter. An infielder who appeared in 22 games over parts of the 1971, 1973, and 1975 seasons, Hunter had a .478 OBP.
A few playing-career notes on legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who died Wednesday at age 93:
A left-handed pitcher, Lasorda made his big-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. The first batter he faced was St. Louis second baseman Red Schoendienst, who went on to manage the Cardinals for 14 seasons.
Lasorda’s last game came with the Kansas City A’s in 1956. The final batter he faced was Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, who drew a free pass with Jack Crimian on the mound. Lasorda was lifted midway through the plate appearance.
Mickey Mantle went 2 for 4 with two strikeouts against Lasorda.
Lasorda pitched in the New York Yankees system in 1956 and 1957, but only in the minor leagues. He finished his professional career back in the Dodgers system, with the Montreal Royals in 1959. All told, Lasorda made 26 big-league appearances and went 0-4 with a 6.48 ERA. He went 136-104 in the minors.
Thinking about Tomoyuki Sugano’s decision to return to the Yomiuri Giants rather than sign with an MLB team, I can’t help but wonder what kind of offer he got from the Los Angeles Angels. That’s assuming he got one at all. According to reports (this per The Japan Times), the teams bidding for Sugano’s services were the Blue Jays, Giants, Mets, Padres, Rangers, and Red Sox. Notable in that group is San Diego, which might reasonably be called pitching-rich. Conversely, the Angels are pitching-thin.
Moreover, along with helping fill a void, Shugano would have given L.A.’s American League club a great marketing tool alongside Shohei Ohtani. Usurping the Dodgers — not to mention the Padres — as the best team in Southern California is currently an impossibility, but making inroads toward relevancy isn’t. If the Angels didn’t seriously pursue Sugano, they seemingly should have.
The newest inductees into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced this coming Thursday. There are 30 players on the ballot, and voters can choose as many as seven. Candidates include Kenji Johjima and Tuffy Rhodes.
Munetaka Murakami is among a handful of NPB players who tested positive for COVID this week. The 20-year-old Yakult Swallows infielder was one of the top performers in Japan this past season, slashing .307/.427/.585.
Rusney Castillo has agreed to terms with NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles (per jballallen.com). The 33-year-old, Cuban-born outfielder has been with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox since seeing his last big-league action in 2016.
Félix Doubront has reportedly signed with the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s Uni-President Lions. The 33-year-old left-hander’s most-recent MLB season was 2015, with the Oakland A’s.
Isaac Paredes led the Mexican Winter League with a .379 batting average. The 21-year-old Detroit Tigers infielder went 55 for 145 playing for Venados de Mazatlán.
Jeremy Peña slashed .306/.349/.430 in 129 plate appearances with Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. The 23-year-old Houston Astros infield prospect was a third-round pick in 2018 out of the University of Maine.
Robbie Grossman expects to attend NHL games in his new city. The 31-year-old outfielder didn’t follow the sport growing up in the Houston area, but as he told members of the Detroit media, playing in Minnesota from 2016-2018 made him a fan.
“I ended up going to a couple of Wild games, and I just loved it,” said Grossman, who inked a free-agent contract with the Tigers on Tuesday. “I will definitely be going to some Red Wings games. I’m looking forward to going.”
How soon that happens will of course depend on when pandemic restrictions are lifted and fans are allowed inside NHL venues. As for what he can expect to see on the ice, Gordie Howe’s old team is in a similar rebuilding mode as the Tigers. Grossman will likely need to stay in Detroit beyond his two-year deal to enjoy more wins than losses, both on the diamond and in the stands at Little Caesars arena.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Chicago Mag, Edward McClelland explained how a data geek named Scott Simkus helped MLB sleuth Negro League stats.
Also at The Athletic, Kaitlyn McGrath talked to Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler about how the departing Blue Jays are leaving a legacy of stars and relationships.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On today’s date in 1973, the Texas Rangers selected Jim Sundberg out of the University of Iowa in the first round of the secondary amateur draft. Sundberg went on to play 16 big-league seasons, and his 1,927 games caught are 10th-most in history.
Players born on today’s date include Gary Martz, whose big-league career comprised one pinch-hit at bat for the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Martz grounded into a 5-4 force out, with George Brett coming around to score from second base. No RBI was awarded.
The Oakland A’s won 83 games in 1980. Their starters combined to throw 94 complete games that year.
In 1913, Christy Mathewson had 25 wins and walked 21 batters. In 1914, Mathewson had 24 wins and walked 23 batters.
Babe Ruth had a complete-game win in his final career pitching appearance, which came in 1933. Ruth had 686 home runs at the time.
Pete Childs had a .206 slugging percentage for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1902. A second baseman, Childs had 78 hits — 73 singles and five doubles — in 403 at bats that season. He finished his two-year career with a .212 batting average in 212 games played.
Luis Tiant’s middle name is Clemente.