In his second major-league season and first year as a rotation regular for the Montreal Expos, Zach Day has emerged as one of baseball’s biggest early-season surprises. The right-hander, who turns 25 next month, has posted a 2.63 ERA so far this year, eighth-best in the National League. Day’s bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker, has helped him put up the highest groundball-to-flyball ratio in the majors at 3.74 (well ahead of second-place Derek Lowe‘s 3.16). Day recently made headlines after getting ejected Saturday in Colorado for putting superglue on his fingers in an attempt to cover a blister. Day recently chatted with BP about Gluegate, the challenges of being a sinkerballer, and the keys to keeping hitters off balance.
Baseball Prospectus: So what actually happened in Colorado?
Zach Day: During the game I got two blisters, one by my nail, one by the pad on my middle finger. It was nothing I needed to be taken out of the game for. I was trying to prevent it from getting worse, so that’s when I put the superglue on it. Except I put much too much on the pad of my finger, so that I couldn’t feel the ball. I had no idea that I couldn’t do it–I wasn’t trying to doctor the ball or anything. That’s why I called the trainer out and didn’t hide the fact. But then the umpire noticed, since it was so tough to get the glue off my finger. I guess that’s why they call it Krazy Glue.
BP: You’ve kind of come out of nowhere this season, doing well while throwing a heavy sinker. Have other people accused you of doctoring the ball because of that?
ZD: People that know me, know that I don’t do it. If a hitter’s standing in the box worrying about it, then they’re in trouble.
BP: What’s the proper way to grip and throw a sinker? Some sinkerballers might throw off the index and middle fingers at the same time while others use just the middle finger. How do you throw it?
ZD: It’s all middle finger for me–that’s where I got my blister. That’s why I was trying so hard to fix that blister. Then when I had no feeling with the finger, you’re just praying you can get it over the plate.
BP: What happens when you’re warming up and you realize that you can’t get a pitch–whether it’s your sinker, slider or another pitch–over the plate?
ZD: It happens. I just try and forget about it, and know that at some point it’s going to click. You have to trust in your stuff. I went through the same thing my last start, where I had some trouble getting command of my sinker. But I found it once I got on the mound. It’s funny: Sometimes you have so much trouble warming up, then you end up with your best stuff on the mound. Other times it’s totally the opposite.
BP: People sometimes say the way to hit a sinkerballer is to take him to the opposite field. Do you agree with that theory? Do you try to make guys pull the ball?
ZD: For lefties, I definitely agree with that. You want them to try and pull it, have them roll over on the ball, and get them to hit it on the ground to the second baseman or shortstop up the middle. I just have to be careful not to leave it up at all, because it’s easy to hit it out when it’s a hanging sinker.
BP: Is it tough pitching when you have to work with a catcher you know has trouble with balls in the dirt? Have you had a bunch of catchers who’ve been bad at blocking balls in the dirt?
ZD: I’ve been very fortunate not to really have that happen much. To get to this level as a catcher you tend to have to play pretty good defense. But yeah, some games you’re in a funk, they’re in a funk, and it’s tough. You need to have confidence the catcher’s going to block the pitch, or you might have to go away from throwing your best pitch.
BP: It seems that a three-quarters delivery is the only way to throw a good sinker. You see a guy like Roy Halladay improve the movement on his sinker by dropping from overhand to three-quarters. What is it about the three-quarter delivery that’s so important for a sinkerballer?
ZD: I don’t worry about arm angle too much actually. I think it’s just getting on top of the ball and getting good extension. If I’m getting on top of the ball, I’m going to have success throwing it.
BP: How do you attack a hitter who loves the ball down in the zone? Do you have to change your strategy to get a hitter like that out, even if it means going away from your best pitch?
ZD: We talk about that before the game when we look at the other team’s lineup. For me, I want to know the guys who are low-ball hitters, who can hit the sinker. We just try and show them something else. It might be a four-seam fastball or a breaking ball.
BP: Do you throw a changeup too, or does it lose its effect since you’re not considered a real hard thrower?
ZD: Oh, I’ll use the changeup more than you’d think. That’s the pitch that’s improved the most for me. I worked on it a lot in spring training and it’s been working for me this season.
BP: The Big O has one of the fastest playing surfaces in the majors. Doesn’t that make you reluctant to throw the sinker, knowing that a lot of groundballs are going to scoot through to the outfield?
ZD: Yeah, it’s not a sinker ball pitcher’s park, it’s a flyball pitcher’s park. Pitching on grass is definitely easier. The thing to do is be patient with it, know that you’re going to give up ground-ball base hits. Patience is a big factor, and you also have to make sure you don’t walk too many guys. Plus if you give up enough ground balls, eventually you’re going to get some double plays.
ZD: Oh yeah, the infielders are my best friends…if they’re making plays, it’s huge. They know I’m a sinkerball guy, so that keeps them on their toes. As long as they’re making plays behind me, we’ve got a chance to win.
BP: There’s a theory that pitchers can only control three batter outcomes: strikeouts, walks, and home runs, and that they basically have no control over balls put in play by hitters. What do you make of that theory, especially since you’re someone who makes his living by trying to get batters to put the ball in play?
ZD: It’s a little out there, but I can kind of see where that’s coming from. I do know this though: If I throw the ball down, there’s a bigger chance the ball will get hit on the ground.
BP: Pitch counts have received a lot of attention over the last few years…this year with the A.J. Burnett injury and the fallout around it. How important is it in your mind for a pitcher’s health and effectiveness to limit pitch counts?
ZD: Well every pitcher is different, with mechanics and in other ways. Everyone bounces back differently from a start. For me, it’s not so much how many pitches I throw during the whole game. It’s whether I have an inning where I throw 30 pitches, I’m out there for a long time and I’m struggling. I think that takes a lot more out of you. When I was in the minors (with the Yankees), if you threw 30 or 35 pitches in an inning, no matter what inning it was, they’d take us out right away.
You could throw 130 pitches, and that’s only 15 or so an inning. I’ve seen Bartolo Colon throw 130 pitches, and he’s throwing 98 miles an hour in the 9th inning.
BP: What’s the Expos’ philosophy, at least at the major-league level? Does the coaching staff strictly enforce a set threshold for pitch count limits?
ZD: No, there’s no set threshold. They kind of go by how you’re going along in the game.
BP: Being efficient with your pitches would seem to keep you in the game longer then, wouldn’t it?
ZD: Oh, definitely. I’m a contact guy. There might be a few times where I’ll feel like I need to get a strikeout. And then even when I try for the strikeout I might end up getting a double play instead. There are only a few situations where I don’t want the hitter making contact. That’s how you approach it as a sinkerball guy, just thinking about contact. I think too many people worry about getting a ton of strikeouts, and that’s how your pitch count can get too high in the first place.