Adrian Houser was the story of Saturday night’s 4-0 Brewers victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. After shortened outings from Brett Anderson and Freddy Peralta in two of the last three games left the bullpen a bit taxed, Houser delivered the franchise’s first complete game shutout since Kyle Lohse in 2014.
Any shutout is an impressive feat worthy of recognition, but the manner in which Houser blanked the Cardinals was especially spectacular. The 28-year-old was a strike-throwing machine. He fired a first-pitch strike to 25 of 29 batters faced, including the entire first turn through the order. Starting in the fifth and ending in the seventh inning, he breezed through seven consecutive hitters without throwing a ball. The result was a highly efficient performance. Houser required just 100 pitches—76 of which were strikes—to complete nine innings.
For as amazingly efficient as Houser was, that may not even be the most impressive facet of his performance. Not only did he fill up the strike zone, but he silenced the opposing Cardinals with more or less one pitch.
As a fairly typical sinkerballer, Houser always relies heavily on his best pitch. He entered last night’s outing having thrown it 53% of the time, with none of his other pitches exceeding 15% usage. He took that approach to the extreme on Saturday, utilizing his sinker for 71% of his total pitches. The right-hander recorded 24 of his 27 outs with the pitch, including six of his seven strikeouts. While he did throw nearly 30 non-sinkers, his main pitch clearly did almost all of the work.
How was Houser able to dominate with just one pitch, especially one that is not known for being particularly effective in the modern game? For one thing, his sinker is among the best in the game, which is not a new revelation. Since 2019, Pitch Info has measured Houser’s sinker as the second-most-valuable in the sport at 34.6 runs above average. On Saturday, however, the combination of movement and command that he possessed was at its very best. According to Statcast, Houser averaged 24 inches of sink, which was an inch greater than his season average of 23 inches. His heaviest sinker dropped 30 inches.
That extra movement helps explain why Houser, who already owned a ground ball rate of 60%, excelled at missing barrels all night. Not only were just seven of 22 batted balls classified by Statcast as hard hit, but Houser did not allow a single barrel.
Just as notably, Houser employed a much different plan of attack with his sinker than he typically does. As one would expect, he usually pounds right-handers down and in with the goal of inducing ground balls.
On Saturday, Houser did the opposite, serving a healthy portion of back-door sinkers to the primarily right-handed Cardinals lineup.
This may have been the game plan all along against the passive Cardinals, who have the eighth-lowest swing rate on pitches in the strike zone and the fourth-highest called strike rate in the league this season. Whatever the motivation for the modified approach, it clearly worked. The back-door sinkers froze the Redbirds all night. Houser’s 22 called strikes with his sinker were the second-most in any start this season. Only Alex Cobb had more, producing 23 sinkers for called strikes on July 3.
Houser also demonstrated a willingness to change eye levels by elevating his sinker. Statcast pitch tracking shows that he threw a total of 20 sinkers that could be classified as “up and in.” That’s the most he has gone to that spot all season. Four of the six whiffs he induced with his sinker came on pitches up and in. For example, here he is climbing the ladder to punch out Tyler O’Neill.
Overall, Houser’s 28 called strikes plus whiffs on sinkers tied Sean Manaea for the most in a single start this year. When you tie it all together—the high usage rate, hitting spots, inducing weak contact, producing called strikes, generating whiffs—it was one of the best performances by a sinker in a single outing in all of baseball this year. In today’s game, many pitchers are discouraged from throwing sinkers, and for good reason. MLB hitters are batting .278 with a .344 wOBA against sinkers and two-seam fastballs this season. Houser featured the 10th-highest sinker usage in a single start of at least 50 pitches this season, and he dominated.
As a contact-oriented pitcher who relies heavily on his defense, Houser’s ceiling will never approach those of the game’s best pitchers. He will always be susceptible to tough outings where he allows more hard contact or suffers from unfavorable batted ball luck. On Saturday night, however, Houser’s sinker was perfect, and the results were excellent. He deserves credit not only for some beautiful work on the mound, but for doing it his way.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.