You can categorize pitchers into three groups, if you'd like. There are strikeout pitchers, who utilize one or more overpowering pitches to make opposing batters swing and miss at a high rate. There are fly-ball pitchers, who concentrate their fastballs up in the zone to force hitters to swing underneath the ball. And lastly, there are ground-ball pitchers, who feature downward movement using a variety of pitch types to induce contact on the ground from the opposition.
The Sacramento River Cats have benefited from a reliever who truly excels in the third of the aforementioned categories. D.J. Snelten, a six-foot, seven-inch left-hander from the University of Minnesota, currently owns the third highest ground ball rate in all of the minor leagues among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings.
At 68.3%, only St. Louis's 2016 second-rounder Connor Jones (68.8%) and Mariners Low-A right-hander Jack Anderson (69.0%) have a higher percentage of ground balls than Snelten in 2017.
The strategy has proven incredibly effective for Snelten, who has been a solid rock in the Triple-A bullpen since he was called up from Richmond on May 23. Through 29 innings, Snelten has a 2.17 ERA alongside a 22.6 K%, 9.6 BB%, and most importantly for a sinkerballer, a .164 opposing batting average.
I asked Snelten about that Triple-A-leading ground ball rate, as well as what types of grips he uses for pitches and how he's become more comfortable as a reliever.
Snelten: "I know from the gate that I’m not one of those guys with overpowering stuff. I don’t have an upper-90s fastball or anything like that. But what I do have is sink and the ability to keep the ball down in the zone. So I take a lot of pride in being able to induce ground balls and have an opportunity to have my defense back me up and go out there playing as a team."
GP: When did you start developing the sinker?
Snelten: "It’s been on and off. I don’t hold it like a typical sinker. But I think with my arm slot and how tall I am, with the way that I try to drive the ball down in the zone, I think my fingers get a little bit inside the ball which allows it to pronate and look like a sinker. So rather than try to find all these crazy grips, I just throw a four-seamer the way it’s meant to be thrown and it naturally sinks."
GP: So to clarify, it’s not the typical two-seam grip many use for a sinker? Is that why your version is a bit higher in velocity?
Snelten: "Yeah I would say 90-93 right now. But on a good day I can get it up to 92-95."
GP: Tell me about your main secondary pitch: the slider.
Snelten: "Believe it or not that’s actually a changeup. It’s a bit more of a screwball-oriented pitch. When I was younger, my dad taught me how to throw a screwball and he saw that I was able to pronate the ball really well. But he didn’t like that I had to throw it with two fingers. So I learned how to throw it with four fingers. So my changeup became a screwball without the extra attention on my elbow."
GP: So the pitch we are all thinking is a slider is actually a changeup?
Snelten: "Yeah, most people confuse my changeup with a slider, which is really flattering. I like being able to see the kind of movement it gets when I pronate it."
GP: Can you describe the grip you use when throwing the changeup?
Snelten: "It’s more of a claw-style changeup, so I take my middle and my ring finger and put it on the two seams. And then as I go to throw it, I take my middle finger and my index finger and pull it down towards the ground."
GP: You moved from the rotation to the bullpen last year with San Jose. How has that transition been for you so far?
Snelten: "It was a great reset for me because as I started to get later into that season, I started throwing too much off-speed and didn’t establish my fastball and hitters found a pitch to sit on. They were able to slap it into the outfield. It was never really getting hit that hard, but I was getting hit often. And more times that not that leads to losing games. So getting into the bullpen was a great reset for me. I learned how to throw 70-80% fastballs again and I was able to find my sinker/four-seam."
GP: Would you say it was a smooth transition? Did it take a while to become comfortable?
Snelten: "No it didn’t take me long at all because when I first got signed by the Giants I came out of the bullpen in Arizona before they made me a starter. The biggest thing is to be able to get that adrenaline going coming into the situation rather than creating it yourself. Understanding what role you’re in and what you’re trying to do in that situation. And being able to come out of the gate throwing your best stuff rather than trying to turn a lineup, I was able to throw all three pitches and attack them."
GP: Do you work together with other sinkerballers and pitchers that feature your same makeup?
Snelten: "That’s the great thing about being up at the higher levels is being able to work with some of these veteran guys. Being able to talk to guys like Kraig Sitton and bounce ideas back and forth. To see what they see when you’re throwing. They can sometimes see things that you can’t feel. So being able to see what’s going on and bounce ideas off each other has been great."
GP: Do you have a pregame routine? Like music you listen to when getting ready?
Snelten: "As for music, no not really. I just try to stay as light-hearted as I can. I don’t get over-serious or try to dial it in too much. As a reliever, you have to be able to take yourself out of a situation and put yourself in really quickly. You have to be ready at any time. So I like to talk to the guys in the bullpen and goof around but still watch and keep an eye on what’s happening. And just get a feel for the situation when the game is about to start. Usually around the fourth inning I’ll either do some foam rolling or something like that and then that’s when I kind of start to get ready. But I wouldn’t say I leave anything to superstition like I used to just because I like to keep things more or less that are in my control."
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