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Pete Fairbanks is working on a hard sinker

At least, we think he is?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

When it had only happened once, on August 22nd with two outs in the seventh in an 0-1 count, it was a curiosity. Sometimes a pitcher doesn’t set his grip right. Sometimes the ball comes out funny, and sometimes funny means good.

Mike Zunino was asking for the pitch down, but he clearly wasn’t expecting it to take off like that, not darting armside and down like there was a massive gravitational body in the right-handed batter’s box. He looked at his glove, then smacked his glove.

You can almost feel him saying, “huh.”

I didn’t notice this pitch live. Maybe I was doing something else when it happened, or maybe when the human brain expects a four-seam fastball or a slider it adjusts a few angles to make sinkers look like four-seam fastballs or sliders. Because Pete Fairbanks doesn’t throw a sinker, right?

I did notice this pitch after the fact, because the folks at Pitch Info (the source for Brooks Baseball) called it a changeup, and Pete Fairbanks doesn’t throw a changeup, right?

Here it is on the graph, with all the other pitches in baseball from 2020 that average at least 93.7 mph and have less than two inches of rise.

Pete Fairbanks sinker/changeup
Pitch Info data from FanGraphs, Ian Malinowski viz

If you care to read all the names here, I’ll note that the Taylor Williams sinker and the Edwin Diaz changeup match my implied above hypothesis and are probably not real pitches — in other words, they are just a handful of aberrations spinning off of a more commonly thrown intentional pitch — in much the same way that this Fairbanks sinker/changeup is probably not a real pitch. (Right?)

But Aaron Bummer throws the best hard sinker in baseball right now, blowing his two-seamer past hitters on 26% of their swings (high for a fastball), while getting them to pound it into the ground 83% of the time that they’re able to put the ball in play. That belongs on this graph. The Austin Brice and Aaron Fletcher versions get good results as well.

And as we’ve already talked about at length, Fairbanks has elite arm talent with imperfect control, so yeah, maybe one time something went wrong and the wrong ended up like a right-handed Aaron Bummer fastball. Sure, it could happen.

But then it happened again, 19 days later.

Twice. In the same at bat.

First, with two outs and a 1-0 count to Corey Dickerson, Kevan Smith asked for and received a pitch right down the middle:

No crossup there. No surprise to Smith. Just a 93 mph get-me-over sinker.

Then, with two strikes, it sure looks like they tried to do it again. Smith flashed the glove high, in case there was someone relaying signals, and then brought his glove low. And Fairbanks tried to throw his best sinker, overdid it, and missed 95 mph in the dirt.

Which is understandable because, let me repeat: Pete Fairbanks doesn’t throw a sinker.

Except that he did again on Sunday, to Red Sox lefty Rafael Devers.

That one, at 92 mph, is actually a pretty good pitch in a pretty good spot.

I think the sequence here is a great example of the conundrum: The next pitch was a four-seam fastball that should probably have been up but instead was low and in the zone. The pitch after that was a slider on Devers’s back foot that the Boston third baseman somehow managed to get bat to and pull into the corner for a double. It was a very good piece of hitting, probably helped by the fact that Fairbanks didn’t succeed in changing eye level before that slider.

Pete Fairbanks doesn’t need another pitch. He already has lightning bolts coming out of his arms, and just needs to consistently command the four-seam fastball and slider that he already throws. Those two can get out anybody.

Now it looks like maybe he’s working in a third pitch — to help against lefties, anyway — and this third pitch looks like it would rank among the top five best hard sinkers in the game, were he to throw it consistently.

But there’s no way Pete Fairbanks has three elite pitches... RIGHT!?