SCOTTSDALE, AZ — The more Angel Zerpa gets his sinker to drop, the better his chance at success rises.
The Kansas City Royals’ prospect had all his pitches working Saturday night in a fine start that helped the Surprise Saguaros win the 2023 Arizona Fall League championship by defeating the Peoria Javelinas, 6-5.
Zerpa gave up one single and struck out six without issuing a walk over three innings. He did it with well-placed fastballs and sinkers along with a crackling breaking ball that some scouts called a curve and others a slider. It often cracks me up when guys semi-argue over the terminology. You can call it a belly-button ball, porcupine pitch or whatever you want. The only thing that matters is its’ effectiveness.
Against the Javelinas, who led the AFL in scoring, it was more than functional. That’s what Saguaros manager Carlos Cardoza was looking for when he tabbed Zerpa to start. Even in the AFL, when there’s a game to be won, skippers trust “their” numbers to be their best buddy.
Cardoza ignored Zerpa’s ordinary 5.56 ERA in five outings during the AFL regular season. What probably caught his eye was what the lefty had accomplished in 19 games and 58 2/3 innings in brief stints at the MLB level over the past three years.
During that time, Zerpa limited lefty MLB batters to a .200 average and only three extra-base hits. Right-handers belted him for 10 doubles, eight homers and a .273 average.
Stop The Lefties!
Clearly, Zerpa was sent out to thwart Peoria’s left-handed hitters. Though he only worked through the lineup once, the 24-year-old left-hander did exactly that, blanking Peoria’s three-headed monster of left-handed hitters – Jakob Marsee, Chase DeLauter and Kyle Manzardo.
In their previous four games that terrific trio combined for a scalding:
22 hits in 48 at bats (.458),
15 runs, 15 RBI, 4 doubles,
1 triple, 5 homers, 7 walks,
and 3 stolen bases
If there were any turtle doves or partridges in pear trees around the ballpark, those guys would have added them to their list.
Zerpa got Marsee on an ordinary flyout to center to open the game, then yielded a single to Nasim Nunez, a switch-hitter batting from the right side. Worried about Nunez’s ability to steal (14-for-14 in the AFl, 183-for-218 in his minor-league career), Zerpa threw over to first three times without getting a pickoff. Baseball’s new rules state that if you don’t nail a runner on the third toss, he goes to second on a balk.
This meant trouble with DeLauter up. The Cleveland Guardians’ outfield prospect had 27 RBI in 23 AFL games. Zerpa ignored Nunez, who stole third. That negated the sinker. If DeLauter could just make contact and send a ground ball to the right side, Nunez would easily score.
So Zerpa unleashed a wicked breaking ball that DeLauter missed by a foot for a strikeout.
Now, with Cleveland’s equally dangerous prospect Manzardo up, the sinker was back in the arsenal. Zerpa used it to jam the slugger, who broke his bat and sent a weak grounder to second and end the threat.
The Royals want Zerpa to pair the swing-and-miss slider and grounder-inducing sinker with a 94-mph fastball. Each pitch makes the other more effective. The arsenal, if mastered, would make him a good mid-rotation starter. If he can only throw the sinker consistently well, that at least projects the lefty as an MLB reliever.
Lefty Sinkers Vs. Lefty Hitters
Sinkers are generally more effective against batters who hit from the same side. That is usually the case for both right-handed and southpaw pitchers. Current lefties who fare well by throwing sinkers to lefty hitters are Blake Snell, Framber Valdez, Justin Steele, Nick Lodolo, Drew Smyly, Martin Perez, Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming.
Valdez of the Houston Astros led all pitchers in inducing ground balls in 2023 as 54.3% of batters who put the ball in play against him hit it on the ground.
Steele became an all-star this year (16-5, 3.05 ERA for the Chicago Cubs. He got batters to hit grounders on 48.9% of balls put in play, the most by any NL lefty. His development likely was helped by talking to veteran teammate Smyly and watching him work the past two years.
Some lefties use the sinker more effectively against right-handed batters. Patrick Corbin, Cole Irvin, Andrew Chafin and David Peterson are current examples of using the “reverse sinker”. The pitch generally goes down and away from a right-handed hitter, working in much the way a good slider from a right-handed pitcher would.
Right-handers hit 20 points lower and are more three times more likely to hit into a double play against Irvin. Corbin gives up more hits to righties but has got 113 of them to hit into double plays. Lefties have hit into only 23 twin-killings against the Washington Nationals veteran.
Tommy John – More Than Just Arm Surgery
When the left-hander came up to the Cleveland Indians in 1963, he had a crackling curve and good fastball. He had a nice career for three teams until July 17, 1974. Pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Montreal Expos that day, he injured his elbow.
He soon had the revolutionary tendon transplant operation that became known as “Tommy John Surgery” because after rehabbing for more than a year, he came back as an even better pitcher. He added a sinker to his repertoire and was a 20-game winner in 1977, 1979 and 1980. He went on to pitch until age 46 in 1989 – racking up 288 wins and an all-time record 605 double plays.
Rick Cerone, who caught John with the New York Yankees in the 1980s, said of the fastball, “It looks like a real good pitch to hit until about the last 10 feet, then it sinks about two or three inches outside. When the batters try to pull it, they just hit these little grounders.”