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The sinker and the splitter are two of the most deceptive pitches in all of baseball that tend to go underused. Greg “Mad Dog” Maddux made a living off of his sinker while Roger “Rocket” Clemens put the splitter on the map.
The biggest difference between the sinker and the splitter is two fold: the spin and the movement it generates. The sinker has more side spin than the traditional fastball and tends to have both downward and arm side movement. The splitter has much less spin than the average fastball and only moves downward — although it can sometimes move slightly to the arm side.
These are two complex pitches that, if mastered, can be devastating for a hitter to face.
The Sinker Grip
The sinker, named after the movement path of the pitch, is thrown much like a two-seam fastball. The goal for the pitcher on a two-seamer is to throw the inside of the baseball creating the side spin that will produce the arm side run. When throwing a sinker, however, it is important that the pitcher also stays on top of the baseball to create the necessary downward movement to cause the pitch to sink.
Like most pitches, there is no one way to throw a sinker. Different grips work for different people.
With that being said, most pitchers typically use a two-seam grip and move both their index and middle fingers slightly more toward the inside part of the ball. Some pitchers even like to split the inside seam with their fingers.
The more the fingers are placed toward the inside, the less velocity the pitcher will be able to generate because their finger placement will not generate as much backspin. In turn, the more the fingers are placed toward the top of the ball, the more velocity the pitch will have.
While some pitchers have to change their grip in order to throw a sinker, some pitchers throw two-seam or even four-seam fastballs that naturally sink. This is because their natural arm action and wrist angle create a natural arm side sink.
Whatever the grip may be, the goal is the same for all sinkers: throw the inside of the ball to create side spin. In video below, Coach Jason from ARM Pitching Development explains some different grip options for sinkers.
The Splitter Grip
While the sinker is named after the movement it creates, the splitter is named after its grip. The pitcher should spread his fingers out on the baseball to where the inside of his fingers are on the outside of the baseball.
It is important not to spread the fingers too wide on the splitter because it will cause less command of the pitch. If the baseball was a clock, the pitcher’s index should be somewhere between the 9 and the 10, and his middle finger should be placed somewhere between the 2 and the 3 (opposite for left-handed pitchers). This gives the pitcher enough control of the ball to command the pitch.
This wider grip causes the pitch to spin much less than the average fastball causing gravity to allow it to drop. Less spin also means that it is typically thrown at lower velocities. The pitchers with exceptional splitters are able to throw it at higher velocities.
Read this short article on pitch grips by Driveline Baseball, and you can understand more about the grip of the splitter and the spin that it produces.
Strategy Behind the Sinker
Think of the sinker as the fastball’s younger cousin. The grip is just a variant of the fastball, and when it is released from the pitcher’s hand, it looks like a fastball to the hitter. As the pitch gets closer to the plate, it moves downward and to the pitcher’s arm side.
The later this sinking movement happens on its path to the plate the more deceptive the pitch is for the hitter. Ultimately, that is the pitcher’s goal when throwing a sinker: to deceive the hitter.
When throwing a sinker, the pitcher typically either wants two specific outcomes: 1) for the hitter to swing overtop of the ball or 2) for the hitter to miss the middle of the baseball and instead make contact with the top of the ball.
Hitting the top of the baseball causes ground balls. This makes it an ideal to pitch to throw in situations where a double-play is possible. Relief pitchers who throw a sinker or have natural sink on their fastball often get the call to enter the game in high leverage double-play situations.
Pitchers can get into trouble with their sinker when they leave it up in the zone. This often happens when they do not get on top of the pitch causing it to stay flat versus sink. When this happens, the pitch just looks like a slower fastball to the hitter which usually leads to hard hit line drives.
Strategy Behind the Splitter
Think of the splitter as the changeup’s cooler cousin. When thrown correctly, it can be a lot more dangerous than the changeup, but it can be much harder to control thanks to its unpredictable spin. Hitters are often taught to pick up the spin on a pitch which is why even good hitters have trouble hitting splitters.
The splitter is often a swing-and-miss pitch. Like the changeup, the change of speed is a big part of what makes it deceptive, but the downward, 12 to 6 movement of the pitch makes it difficult for hitters to make contact.
The splitter is typically thrown when the pitcher is ahead in the count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2). This is because even the best pitchers have more difficulty commanding their splitter than their other pitches, so throwing the pitch in favorable counts limits the risk if it is thrown for a ball. Hitters often chase the splitter which also makes it a great pitch to throw with two strikes.
However, pitchers must be careful about leaving this pitch up in the zone. The higher the splitter is thrown, the less downward movement it has. Like the sinker, a splitter left up in the zone can be a hitter’s dream.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the sinker safe for youth pitchers?
While youth pitchers should learn to command a fastball and a changeup before they learn to throw a sinker, it doesn’t present any arm health concerns for a young pitcher. It is no more dangerous than throwing a fastball.
When should a pitcher learn to throw a sinker?
Like most other offspeed pitches, a pitcher should wait until he has a good command of his fastball before learning the sinker. The sinker works off the fastball, so a good sinker without a good fastball is not as effective.
Is the splitter safe for youth pitchers?
A youth pitcher may want to caution against throwing a splitter. Widening the fingers creates a little more tension on the elbow than most other pitches. (Place your left hand on your right elbow and separate your middle and index finger to feel the muscles around your elbow tighten.) Pitchers whose muscles and joints are still developing should probably wait to learn the splitter.
When should a pitcher learn how to throw a splitter?
Physically mature pitchers who throw over the top may have success learning to throw a splitter. Pitchers who throw from more of a three-quarter arm slot typically struggle getting on top of the splitter to create the downward action.
Which pitch is more difficult to hit?
That really depends on the hitter. Hitters who prefer the ball low in the zone may prefer sinkers because pitchers often try to throw them in the bottom of the strike zone. Hitters with good plate discipline may prefer splitters because pitchers have more trouble commanding the pitch leading to more walks.