It is severalhours before game time, and the stretching, napping and talking in the ArizonaDiamondbacks' clubhouse is accompanied by the strains of Led Zeppelin's Overthe Hills and Far Away. The music is coming not from a sound system but fromthe acoustic guitars of starting pitcher Brandon Webb and reliever BrandonMedders, who are softly jamming in one corner of the room. Webb is quick topoint out that he is a novice next to Medders, who plays at Phoenix-area clubsin his spare time. "I know the chords, so if you tell me what to play, Ican do it," Webb says. "When I play with Medders it sounds cool, buthe's the real thing. I'm just fooling people." ¬∂ Webb is far less deceptivewith a baseball. When he takes the mound, every hitter who faces him knows thatthree out of four pitches Webb throws will be his sinker, a two-seam fastballthat approaches the batter at thigh level, then suddenly plummets to hisankles, as if sucked into a vacuum. But the batter's foreknowledge does notconcern Webb in the least. You get the feeling that the Diamondbacks couldalert opposing hitters with a message on the scoreboard--next pitch:sinker--and Webb would throw it anyway.
It's not that hethinks he's unhittable, although considering the way Webb has begun theseason--8-0 with a 2.14 ERA, not to mention a string of 30 consecutivescoreless innings which ended in Webb's no-decision Monday night as theDiamondbacks lost 4-3 to the Philadelphia Phillies--he hasn't been far from it.It's just that Webb, a 6'2", 228-pound righthander, has such a devastatingsinker that the element of surprise has never been especially necessary."When that pitch is on, it doesn't matter if you're looking for it ornot," says manager Bob Melvin. "You go to swing at it, and it justdisappears. It really is a one-of-a-kind sinker."
The pitch hasturned the 27-year-old Webb into not only a Cy Young Award candidate but alsothat rarest of starting pitchers: one who can work his way repeatedly throughbig league batting orders without overpowering hitters or fooling them. Heestimates that he has thrown his sinker about 75% of the time this season, downfrom as high as 90% in some games during his first three years in the majors.Catcher Johnny Estrada and pitching coach Bryan Price, both in their first yearwith the Diamondbacks, have persuaded him to mix in his curveball and changeupmore often, to add some element of guesswork for hitters. Webb, an agreeablesort, is willing to go along with their plan even though it seems he would bejust as comfortable with a single arrow in his quiver. "I used to go four,five, six innings in a row without throwing an off-speed pitch," he says,"and it worked fine."
It was shortlyafter seeing Webb's sinker for the first time, in spring training, that newArizona second baseman Orlando Hudson began calling him Ace. Now Webb ispitching like one, the Diamondbacks are paying him like one (he signed afour-year, $19.5 million contract extension in January), and he's even begun toact a bit like one. "He's got a little swagger to him now, a realconfidence in himself," Melvin says.
But here again,Webb makes no effort to fool anyone. He's a self-described "countrykid," a man of simple pleasures with a small-town sensibility who returnshome to Ashland, Ky., with his wife, Alicia--they have a two-month-olddaughter, Reagan--every off-season for a winter of hunting and yard work."Even if I ever earned the right to be considered a star," he says,"I wouldn't know how to act like one."
Aside from hisrecord and ERA, Webb doesn't have the statistical profile of a typical No. 1starter. He's not a strikeout pitcher (6.1 Ks per nine innings through Monday),and he gives up a fair amount of hits (opponents were batting .254 againsthim). That's because his sinker isn't meant to blow hitters away but to inducethem to hit the ball on the ground, which they do with remarkable regularity.When Webb's on the mound, Arizona outfielders might as well pull up a chair andwatch the infielders do all the work. He's gotten more ground-ball outs thanany pitcher in baseball and is one big reason why Arizona leads the majors indouble plays, with 76 (including at least one in a team-record 17 consecutivegames last month). When he shut out the Atlanta Braves 13-0 on May 20, it wasclassic Webb--18 outs on ground balls, eight strikeouts and one fly out.
A batter's bestapproach when facing a sinkerballer--laying off the pitch and letting it dropout of the strike zone--doesn't work against Webb because his sinker oftenkisses the bottom of the zone as it crosses the plate. Braves third basemanChipper Jones tried moving up in the batter's box to hit the pitch before itplummeted. "Didn't really work," Jones said. "He's got such greatcommand that the ball still drops out of sight at the last second. A lot oftimes it's at the knees when it crosses the plate, but it's still sinking.Those are the balls you just beat into the ground."
While it ranklesWebb a bit whenever he gives up a hit, batters get far more frustrated than hedoes. After Atlanta slugger Andruw Jones swung over the top of a vicious sinkerduring Webb's shutout of the Braves, he looked at Estrada behind the plate androlled his eyes. "He was like, Are you kidding me?" says Estrada.Arizona infielders have become part-time shrinks for opponents who want to ventabout the nastiness of Webb's trademark pitch. "Every single guy who getsto second base says the same thing, that they've never seen a sinker thatfilthy," says shortstop Craig Counsell. "Without fail. Everytime."
Hitters shouldsave some of their ire for Royal Clayton, the older brother of journeymanshortstop Royce and the man Webb credits for first spotting his ability tothrow the sinker. In 2000 Royal was the pitching coach for the Diamondbacks'Class A affiliate in South Bend, when Webb reported there after being draftedout of Kentucky in the eighth round. "I had a big curveball that was my outpitch up to that point, but Royal was watching me throw my first bullpensession and liked that my two-seam fastball had some natural downward movementto it," Webb says. "He worked with me, and some other people helped medevelop [the sinker] as I moved through the system."
Given howeffective Webb has been with the sinker, it's not surprising that otherpitchers have asked him to show them how he throws it. The lesson doesn't takevery long because Webb insists there's no particular trick to getting the ballto sink. "It's just a two-seam fastball," he says. "I grip it thesame way any other pitcher would for a two-seamer."
He grips thebaseball with his forefinger and middle finger on the seams at the point wherethe seams are closest together, with his thumb on the underside of the ball. Heapplies pressure with the two top fingers as the ball spins off them, impartingits sinking action. Why the ball sinks more dramatically when Webb throws itthan it does when most other pitchers do exactly the same thing is one of themysteries of baseball, but Webb has his theories. "I think it has to dowith your arm action and release point more than anything else," he says."I come over the top with my delivery a little more than most guys, andthat might account for the sink."
Other pitchersrely on an effective sinker, such as Atlanta's Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay of theToronto Blue Jays, Derek Lowe of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Carlos Silva ofthe Minnesota Twins but Webb still throws a "heavier" ball than most."It's like a bowling ball that rolled off a table," says Estrada, whohas caught Hudson as well. "It lands in my glove, and it feels like itweighs about 10 pounds. Imagine what it feels like to hit something likethat."
When he firstbegan developing the pitch in 2000, Webb changed his motion a bit so that hecould throw the sinker to either side of the plate, but it took him most of thefollowing season to learn how to control the pitch. The 27 batters he hit in'01 paid the painful price for his education. By the next season he hadharnessed the pitch well enough to become one of the Diamondbacks' topprospects, and he made it to the majors in '03. After an encouraging rookieseason in which he finished 10-9 with a 2.84 ERA, Webb slipped to 7-16 in '04when he lived a sinkerballer's worst nightmare--pitching in front of a shakyinfield. The Diamondbacks committed 139 errors that year, 36 in Webb'sstarts.
The lack of trustin his infield caused Webb to change his pitching style. Instead of trying toinduce ground balls, he started nibbling on the corners and trying to strikeout hitters. His walks skyrocketed as a result, from 3.39 per nine innings in'03 to 5.15. Last year the infield improved, and so did Webb's control. Heslashed his walks in half and finished 14-12 with a 3.54 ERA. This season, withan even better middle infield--Counsell moved from second base to short to makeway for the Gold Glove--winning Hudson--Webb is again unafraid of allowinghitters to make contact and is averaging fewer than one walk per nineinnings.
After his 6-0start last year he went only 8-12 the rest of the season, a slide that Webb isdetermined not to repeat. "A pitcher of Webby's caliber ought to be in theAll-Star Game and in the hunt to win 20 games every year," says Estrada."My goal is to help him get there."
Webb makes nosecret of the fact that he has similar hopes. "Team goals come first,"he says, "but I don't think there's any harm in saying that there are somethings I'd like to achieve as a pitcher."
After all, Webbdidn't get this far by trying to fool anyone.
For more from Phil Taylor, check out the Hot Buttonevery Wednesday at SI.com.