How Scott Alexander became a one-pitch wonder in the Royals’ bullpen

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Scott Alexander throws in the eighth inning during Wednesday’s game against the Houston Astros at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Scott Alexander throws in the eighth inning during Wednesday’s game against the Houston Astros at Kauffman Stadium.

The idea sounded preposterous at first, so wild that Scott Alexander didn’t believe it could work. He kept listening to his teammates, the ones that kept imploring him to throw more sinkers. Did they understand the math?

Alexander, the Royals’ left-handed reliever, knew that his sinker was his best pitch, the weapon that propelled him to the big leagues. A fastball with more than 4 inches of downward movement, the pitch was a true sinker — a “dive bomber”, in the words of Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland. It induced ground balls at a high clip and vexed opposing hitters. Yet as Alexander logged innings out of the bullpen in 2016, he was already throwing the pitch close to 75 percent of the time. How could he throw more?

“For me, that sounds kind of crazy to throw just one pitch,” Alexander said. “It’s gonna get hit.”

Alexander was not convinced. And perhaps this makes what happened next all the more fascinating. One year later, Alexander is in the midst of the finest season of his career. Back in the Royals’ bullpen, he has posted a 1.38 ERA in 26 innings, allowing just one base runner per inning. He leads all of baseball in ground-ball rate, inducing grounders at a stunning 76.1-percent clip.

And he is accomplishing this by doing what he didn’t think possible: He is basically throwing one pitch: The sinker.

To be specific, Alexander, 27, is throwing his sinker 94.8 percent of the time. For perspective: As of Saturday, he was throwing the highest percentage of fastballs in baseball, and it puts him in rare company.

There are pitchers that can subsist on one pitch. Mariano Rivera built a Hall of Fame career on a cutter. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has taken over as the king of the cutter in Los Angeles. And Orioles closer Zach Britton was the best reliever in baseball last season on the strength of a nuclear 96 mph sinker.

Alexander is not in that class, of course. But his reliance on the sinker has made him an unexpected force, a one-pitch wonder offering a lift to a rebuilt Royals bullpen.

“You dance with it,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “It’s almost like you can tell the hitter: ‘This is coming.’

“They see it. They go to get it. It has that late action, and they hit the top half of the ball.”

Inside the Royals’ clubhouse, teammates gush over the pitch. Manager Ned Yost says Alexander’s development allowed the club to experiment with left-hander Matt Strahm in the starting rotation. Eiland says Alexander’s performance and repertoire have conjured internal comparisons to Britton, an All-Star lefty who relies primarily on the sinker.

At the least, Eiland says, Alexander is something like Britton-lite.

“For me, I don’t know if ‘miniature’ is the right word,” Eiland said. “But you look at Zach Britton, he has the same type of late life [on the sinker]. You’re crazy not to throw it a majority of the time.”

For now, the Britton comparisons may seem a bit premature. Alexander, 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, is a former sixth-round pick whose fastball has averaged 92.5 mph in 2017. In parts of three seasons, he has logged just 51 career innings. Britton, meanwhile, is a former top prospect coming off one of the best relief seasons ever, posting a 0.54 ERA while recording 47 saves. He unleashes heat-seeking missiles at 96 mph, bowling-ball sinkers that devastate opposing hitters.

Alexander cannot match the velocity or the power. Yet he sees one connection. He has long sought to emulate the Orioles left-hander, seeing the similarities in style. So in the last year, he read an article about Britton’s career, how he came to throw his sinker more than 90 percent of the time.

“He just felt like: ‘It’s too predictable to throw it [all the time],’” Alexander said. “But once he started throwing it more, that’s when he started finding more success. I kind of felt like, ‘Alright, let’s try it.’ “

Alexander ditched his slider. He rationed his changeups. But the sinker would be but one piece of a breakthrough. Drafted out of Sonoma State University in 2010, he made steady progress through the minor leagues before earning a September callup in 2015. In 2016, he returned to the major leagues in May and put up solid numbers in relief before an unexpected medical issue threatened his season.

As the summer continued, Alexander found himself suffering from constant fatigue and exhaustion. His body was a mess, weak and struggling to maintain weight. In the span of one night, he would wake up to go to the bathroom seven or eight times. As he pitched at Class AAA Omaha, the Royals recommended he see a doctor. The diagnoses was diabetes. His blood-sugar levels were spiking.

The news was shocking. Yet it offered Alexander some peace of mind. All year, he had wondered what was wrong. Why was he so tired, so sore after outings? Why couldn’t he maintain his velocity? For a while, he says, he thought something was wrong with his mechanics. He searched for any possible answer.

In the days after the diagnosis, Alexander went on medication to control his blood-sugar levels. He altered his diet, eliminating carbs and sugars. Just three or four outings after that, Alexander says, he was back in the major leagues. One year later, his body feels transformed.

“That’s helped me a lot,” Alexander said. “The ability to recover and just feel better every day. Whereas last year, I was just barely hanging on; I was just grinding it out every day. And now it just feels a little easier.”

In 2016, Alexander would finish with a 3.32 ERA in 17 appearances for the Royals. He struck out 16 hitters in 19 innings. The results, he says, were strangely encouraging.

“I had a lot of motivation,” Alexander said. “[I went] through a whole year with diabetes and I didn’t feel like I was too overmatched.”

In 2017, Alexander’s average fastball velocity has jumped from 90.7 to 92.5 mph. He has proven to be both efficient and durable, recording seven appearances of at least two innings. Better health has been crucial, he says. But at the heart of the rise is the sinker.

“He’s on the attack with it,” Yost said.

The origins of the pitch, Alexander says, actually date back to his first college stop: Pepperdine. One day, he was throwing a bullpen while former major-league pitcher Scott Erickson, a classic sinker-baller, looked on. Erickson lived nearby in Malibu and would join the Pepperdine baseball program for workouts. As he watched Alexander’s ball move with natural sink, he offered a suggestion.

“You should try throwing this,” Alexander remembered him saying.

For years, Alexander remained a starter. He possessed a breaking ball. He toyed around with a changeup. But the sinker was always there. Now the story has come full circle. Alexander still has it, and it is devastating, and so he throws it … almost always.

“I started throwing it,” Alexander said. “It kind of became who I was.”

The highest ground-ball rates in baseball (minimum 20 innings pitched):

1. Scott Alexander, Royals, 76.1 percent

2. T.J. McFarland, Diamondbacks, 69.0 percent

3. Alex Claudio, Rangers, 68.8 percent

4. Pedro Strop, Cubs, 68.7 percent

5. Richard Bleier, Orioles, 67.9 percent

6. Dallas Keuchel, Astros, 67.4 percent

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