By Any Means Necessary: Buffalo’s Nick Sinay
OXFORD, Ohio — In a game between two teams that had 12 combined wins coming into the weekend, fighting to stay out of last place in a conference nobody’s paying attention to, on a field that’s like the moon — it’s beautiful, but nobody goes there who doesn’t really make an effort — you’d find one of the most interesting players in college baseball.
Nick Sinay is the junior center fielder and leadoff hitter for Buffalo, and he’s unbelievably fast. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he’s built low and slim, but obviously powerful, like a Formula One car, and he zips along the basepaths like you’re watching a movie and the frame rate is different when he’s on screen. He might be the fastest player I’ve ever seen in person.
That’s pretty much the selling point for Sinay. He’s got a career .049 ISO, so there isn’t much power in his game, and that’s not the kind of number you want to see from a player who’s got almost as many career strikeouts as hits.
“Without speed, I don’t want to say that I don’t have much,” Sinay said, “but it’s why I’m successful with what I’m doing.”
Sinay’s game, in a nutshell, could be seen as an attempt to disprove the old baseball truism that you can’t steal first base. And it’s going pretty well so far. His batting average is up some 76 points from last year, and his compact swing results in line drives, if not many doubles or hardly any home runs. The strikeouts are partially an artifact of his tendency to run deep counts — he leads the team in walks, despite giving pitchers no incentive to pitch around him. And most importantly, and unusually, he gets hit by a pitch about once every 10 plate appearances. On a per-game basis, he’s been the third-most plunked player in Division I. The result: a .496 OBP, among the top 30 in the country.
When Sinay was on base last year, it was probably not the result of a hit — he had 45 hits as a sophomore, against 25 HBPs and 36 walks. This year, he’s tried a more conventional approach, but the results have been more or less the same.
“I took a little bit off the plate, stepped away from it, just to get more on the barrel so I can start barreling up balls a little more,” Sinay said. “But they keep hitting me, and I’ll take it, because I love to get on base.”
Once he’s there, he doesn’t stop until the base in front of him is either occupied or guarded by a man holding the ball. He’s stolen 26 bases in 30 attempts in 27 games, accounting for almost two-thirds of Buffalo’s team stolen base total all by himself.
You’d think that moving back from the plate a little, in concert with the new rule requiring batters to make an effort to get out of the way of an incoming pitch, would keep Sinay safer. Not so — he’s on pace to surpass last year’s total anyway, and even he’s not entirely sure why.
“I never was one to just stick my elbow out and get hit,” he said. “They throw the high, inside fastball, and I go with my stride, see the pitch come back and it still ends up hitting me.”
Against Miami (Ohio) on Friday, Sinay went 2-for-4 with a walk, a triple, a stolen base and three runs scored. And, of course, he was hit by a pitch. One hit was a line drive that eluded Miami center fielder Jake Romano, and so became Sinay’s third extra-base hit of the year. The other came in the seventh inning, with lefty Ryan Marske on the mound.
With the 6-foot-5 Marske falling off the mound to the third base side as he threw, and 6-foot-5 first baseman Kendall Johnson having committed three errors already in the game, Sinay saw an opportunity to force his way on base.
“Every team this year has played me on the grass,” Sinay said. “I know last year I bunted a lot more than I have this year, but if I get the opportunity to push it up the line or down the line, I’ll take it. (Former teammate) Jason Kanzler had told me: ‘(Against) every lefthanded pitcher, push bunt — they’re never going to cut you.’ So that’s what I’ve been living by this season.”
Sinay’s bunt died in the tall, slick grass, and he was almost at the unguarded first base bag by the time Marske and Johnson were even thinking about picking up the ball.
In the ninth, Sinay took a pitch off the shoulder, stole second base, then took a lead off second that could only be interpreted as a personal insult to Miami reliever Ryan Haynes. Haynes looked Sinay back momentarily, but Sinay danced even farther off the bag, until Haynes finally turned and threw the ball into center field, allowing Sinay to get to third base.
“Put the pressure on the other team,” Sinay said. “That’s what I do. I wreak havoc, as (head coach Ron Torgalski) says, on the basepaths. I just keep putting it on them — I’ll take my big leads and make them throw the ball around. And I’ll just keep going with it.”
It’s an incredibly exciting brand of baseball to watch, and Sinay very much looks and acts the part. His walking stride makes you think he has to make a conscious effort to stop himself from breaking into a jog, and he talks the way he runs the bases — unbelievably quickly, like he’s trying to accomplish as much as he can before someone tells him to stop. Short and goateed, he wears his pants at the knees and pulls his stirrups up as high as possible — an affectation he says carried over from his high school team, where high socks were a team rule — and applies his eye black liberally.
In fact, apart from moving back from the plate, the big adjustment Sinay made for his junior year was switching from conventional grease paint to burning the end of a cork and rubbing that under his eyes.
“I love this,” Sinay said. “It comes off really easily, it looks real good. I just light it in the hotel room and put it on right before we head out. It’s kind of my trademark.”
The conventional way — the easy way, even — for a leadoff hitter to get himself into scoring position is to hit a double. Sinay’s way — take a fastball to the ribs, then dance off first for a while before stealing second — is much tougher on the body.
Sinay says he’s spoken to scouts from “a couple handfuls” of pro teams, and while it’s anyone’s guess whether his peculiar style of play will translate to the next level, he’s confident that he’ll be given the chance to at least prove that he can’t hack it in pro baseball.
The bruises, the constant starting, stopping, sprinting, sliding, the mental discipline to work the count to draw the walk or bait the pitcher, to say nothing of time in the batting cage and the weight room — that’s a lot of exertion and pain, both mental and physical.
Sinay’s method of getting on base brings to mind Ron Hunt, a second baseman of limited talent who was hit by 243 pitches in 6,158 major league plate appearances over 12 seasons. Hunt was the most plunked batter in the majors every year from 1968 to 1973, including a record 50 times in 1971.
“Some people give their bodies to science,” Hunt famously said. “I gave mine to baseball.”
Hunt had a professional incentive, modest as it was by today’s standards, to put himself through that abuse, and even so, he was hit less than half as frequently as Sinay is. Sinay doesn’t get paid, and he plays for — due respect to Buffalo — a bad team in a conference not many people care about. He’s not chasing a title, or national glory, or anything more than a remote chance at a professional career. How can the physical punishment he takes possibly be worth it?
“I love the game of baseball,” he said. “The way I play the game, I get hit by a pitch, or I work a walk, or I’m diving out there, sliding into second — it’s all worth it. I love the game. That’s the way my game style’s been. It’s never been that I’m going to hit the ball all over the field. It’s 100 percent worth it … There’s not one time when I’m giving up on a pitch. That’s what I’m all about — I bust my ass every day.”
Considering the work Sinay’s willing to put in, the physical abuse he’s willing to take eagerly, in service of such modest ends, it makes sense that he’d switch his eye black from grease paint to cork. Because there are grinders, and then there are guys who leave the field every day literally covered in dirt and ash.