‘Sanker gonna be sankin’: The origin story of Marcus Stroman’s defining pitch

Stroman got the start in the Cubs’ spring-training opener Saturday against the Giants.

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Right-hander Marcus Stroman allowed a run in two innings as the Cubs beat the Giants 10-8 in their Spring Training opener Saturday at Sloan Park in Mesa, AZ.

Right-hander Marcus Stroman allowed a run in two innings as the Cubs beat the Giants 10-8 in their Spring Training opener Saturday at Sloan Park in Mesa, AZ.

MESA, Ariz. — Even before right-hander Marcus Stroman took the mound in the Cubs’ Cactus League opener Saturday against the Giants, he provided a catchphrase of sorts for the team.

When asked last week about the pairing of Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner up the middle, Stroman said: “That sanker gonna be sankin’.”

The quote took off, referenced by players, coaches and media members in the following days. Obvious Shirts even put it on a shirt. But more than providing a catchy mantra that tapped into the strength of this Cubs team — a group built on run prevention — Stroman’s sinker served as a turning point in his career.

“If I never found that pitch,” he said in a conversation with the Sun-Times, “I don’t think I would have had the career that I’ve had up to this point.”

The story of how he found that pitch begins in the summer of 2014, with a rookie Stroman sitting on his couch in Toronto, a ball in his hand.

“I’m always playing with a baseball,” Stroman said, “and it’s just a grip that I felt in my hand that felt very comfortable and loose.”

Stroman’s unique sinker grip is essentially a one-seamer, with the ball rotated off a more traditional finger placement. It felt comfortable, so he took it from his couch into catch the next day.

“It kept doing the same thing over and over with really good depth,” he said.

Stroman’s next start was against the Rangers. He told his catcher, Dioner Navarro, that he’d been playing with a sinker. Maybe after another bullpen, they could break it out in a game. He never expected to throw it that day.

Fast-forward to the fifth inning. The Blue Jays had just taken a two-run lead. With two outs and a full count against Rangers leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo, Stroman looked in to get the sign from Navarro.

Sinker.

Stroman paused.

“I’m like, there’s no way he just called a sinker,” Stroman said.

He remembers Navarro putting the sign down again and throwing up his hands. Throw it.

So Stroman threw it, and Choo watched the ball cross the plate, breaking down and away for strike three.

“Shin-Soo Chu’s a really good hitter,” Stroman said. “For him to take a 3-2 heater down the middle just showed you how good the action and the depth was.”

Stroman’s sinker was born.

The next year, his sinker usage jumped from 18.1% to 41.3%, according to Baseball Savant.

“I used to try to throw the ball as hard as I can at the box,” Stroman said. “And that’s not realistic for your body, for your mind, year after year after year. So the movement, it allowed me to find a pitch, a fastball, that I can throw in the zone and get minimal contact, weak contact, against anybody. And that’s a really confident feeling when you have that.”

The last couple seasons have been about adding back Stroman’s four-seam fastball. He relied on the four-seamer too much at the beginning of last season, and the quality of his sinker suffered. When he got in a groove in the second half, it was because he’d gone back to leaning on his sinker. But he said he and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy have been workshopping his four-seamer.

“I think I have it,” Stroman said. “It’s not something I’m ever going to depend on, and it’s not something I’m ever going to come out and make a dominant pitch of mine. It’s something that I’m going to flash, use late.”

The key, according to Stroman, has been a tweak in his workouts, focussing more on stability and mobility, as opposed to lifting heavy. But the star of his arsenal won’t change.

That sanker gonna be sankin’.

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