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Spokane Indians

The ‘Unicorn’: Lefty Sean Sullivan succeeding with deception, guile more than explosive fastball

In the modern game, pitching is all about triple-digit fastballs, spin rates and “sweepers.” But Spokane Indians starter Sean Sullivan is a bit of a throwback, surviving on deception and guile to make his low-90s fastball play bigger than it is.

Sullivan, a 6-foot-4 left-hander, relies heavily on his fastball which he throws from a low arm slot and wide angle that makes it “play up” in the zone to fool hitters more than blow them away. That’s helped the second-round pick in last year’s MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies find success at the High-A level this season.

He’s made seven starts, covering 401/3 innings, with a 2.68 ERA and 0.992 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 11.2 per nine innings. He’s only walked three batters all season.

“If you were to like look at my fastball just strictly on ball flight, it wouldn’t be very impressive,” Sullivan said. “It definitely has some riding qualities, but it’s nothing crazy. I think the big part of it is the lower arm slot with the riding fastball, and that creates a tough approach angle for the hitters where it comes in very flat so it kind of appears like it’s coming like up at their face.”

Sullivan uses an unusually long stride off the pitching rubber, and that extension and atypical arm slot makes his fastball appear to be much faster than it really is. It’s difficult for a batter to pick up, which leads to a lot of swings and misses – or if there is contact, weak pop-ups.

“He’s off the charts where it comes to his extension,” Indians pitching coach Blaine Beatty said. “The deception with his velocity and his ability to pitch at the top of the zone has triggered the success that he’s had here in this league.”

Analytics say that every 3 inches closer to home plate a pitcher releases the ball makes it seem like a mile per hour faster.

“We’ve identified those things now because of analytics and our ability to have tools that we can read that with,” Beatty said. “And so we know what we’re looking at and we know and understand why that they’re effective and why they have the success that they have is because of that ability to get extension to the plate and the velocity is perceived way different than what the actual number shows you.”

“If you watch me pitch, you can tell it’s a little funky,” Sullivan said. “It’s just how my body transfers energy down the mound. … I’ve gone to the same pitching coach since I was young. And a big thing we’ve worked on was kind of moving down the mound properly. For me – my body, the way I throw – when I get down the mound and get far out there and in front of things, my timing syncs up and it’s just easier. I’m using less of my arm and more of my legs. It’s also a good thing because it’s less time for the hitter to see the ball.”

Sullivan isn’t necessarily chasing strikeouts when he pitches. The thoughtful 21-year-old knows the game is as difficult for hitters as it is for pitchers.

“I think a lot of pitchers give hitters too much credit,” he said. “You’ve got to just try to fill up the zone and attack hitters. You’re at an advantage as the pitcher, statistically. If you go out there and attack and just have a presence on the mound, good things will happen. I’m not like ‘Oh, I gotta strike this guy out.’ Obviously, sometimes you want one here and there. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is putting up zeros.”

He owns a couple of other pitches that are works in progress, but Sullivan is a self-pronounced “fastball guy.”

“This year I’ve made I think some great strides in my off-speed pitches, specifically my slider and my change-up,” he said. “The change-up is kind of a low, like fading almost two-seam action with some depth in it. And then the slider is more of a sweeping slider right now, but I’m trying to firm it up a little bit.”

The slider, in particular, is a weapon that Sullivan wants to incorporate more into his arsenal.

“I didn’t really use my slider a bunch in college. So I think just using it more in games and practice and now just being more conscious about the shape of it and what I’m specifically trying to do and how that plays off my other stuff. So, I think, not just going up there and trying to just have a breaking ball but something that actually is effective for what I’m trying to do and my pitch plan.”

Sullivan, who started his college career at Northwestern before transferring to Wake Forest, said his pitching coaches he’s had throughout his career haven’t tried to shorten his stride to try to coax a few more ticks of speed out of him.

“I think I’ve been pretty fortunate to have coaches who have always kind of respected that – this is kind of the way that my body works,” he said. “There’s obviously certain things which no matter the arm slot that all pitchers need to work on, like the lower half and stuff like that. But my arm slot is kind of something natural.”

Sullivan didn’t make a big impact at Wake Forest right away. He had built up a high pitch count the previous season and in summer ball, so the Deacons took it easier in the fall, especially considering they were returning most of their starting rotation. But an injury to Teddy McGraw, who was eventually drafted by the Seattle Mariners, propelled Sullivan into the lineup, and he came through in a big way – for his team and his draft status.

“I would never wish (injury) upon anyone. And it was honestly heartbreaking for our whole team because we all saw how good (McGraw) was,” Sullivan said. “But somebody had to step up. I obviously was looking for a bigger role, and I’m always willing to take on that next challenge. I wanted to play in a better conference and play in the biggest spots. So, I was kind of up for the challenge and just kind of took off with it.”

They used to call the type of pitcher Sullivan is a “crafty lefty.” Scouts call him a “unicorn” or a “throwback,” succeeding with a style that isn’t prevalent in the modern game.

“Obviously, I wish I threw 100 (mph),” he said. “But it’s fun to go out there and have success and learn and get to play the game that I love to play with a great team. I guess it’s kind of cool to be called a unicorn.”