PHOENIX – When Aaron Bummer looks back on his rise from 19th-round draft pick to key reliever for the White Sox, one day in particular stands out.
The day he found his sinker.
“I think about it all the time,” a smiling Bummer said Saturday.
Bummer used that heavy sinker to become one of the American League's most reliable relievers last year, compiling a 2.13 ERA and his first career save in 58 appearances. Opponents hit only .184 against the left-hander, and he had a ground-ball rate of 72.1% – second only to Yankees reliever Zack Britton among qualified pitchers, according to FanGraphs.
Speaking of Britton ...
In 2017, when Bummer was playing for Class A Winston-Salem, he was watching Britton on TV with teammate Ryan Riga when they decided they wanted to figure out how Britton throws his sinker.
“We were roommates. We went on YouTube, and then we sat there and just kind of like tinkered with stuff,” Bummer said. “The next day, we got out to BP and we went and played catch the entire batting practice, trying different grips and trying different things.”
On one of his throws, it clicked.
“I found something. I was like, ‘Oh wow, that sunk,'” the 26-year-old Bummer said. “It was like, 'OK, let's go ahead and roll with that.'”
Bummer made his major league debut that July. He got his first and only major league win so far in his seventh game, tossing two scoreless innings against Kansas City.
But he really found his stride last year. Serving as one of the Sox's main setup men in front of Alex Colomé, Bummer had 27 holds – a single-season franchise record for a lefty.
“He’s got stuff that could put you back on your heels,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He can get a lot of ground balls for us in big situations. We are not afraid to use him in any situation. He developed and put himself in a really good position as far as who we are as a club and how we use him.”
The Sox rewarded Bummer with a $16 million, five-year contract last month that includes two club options.
It's a long way from the start of his professional career. Bummer played college ball at Nebraska before he was selected by the Sox in the 2014 draft.
After making 16 appearances in rookie-level ball that same year, Bummer had surgery in April 2015 to remove bone spurs and loose bodies from his elbow. When he started coming back after the operation, he still felt pain in his arm and wondered if that was just something he would have to deal with for the rest of his career.
It got bad enough that Bummer went for an MRI that revealed a torn ligament in his elbow. He had Tommy John surgery that August, raising concern that his professional career might be over right after he got started.
“I didn't know where the future was going to take me,” Bummer said. “I think after we had that surgery I was just thankful to wherever that baseball led me I was just going to be happy that potentially it was going to be pain-free and that at least I was going to be able to give it to my best ability.”
Bummer's ability got him all the way to the majors, thanks in part to his BP session with Riga in 2017. He said Riga jokes with him about how he wishes he had found that sinker grip.
“It's one of those things where everybody can do so many different things to the baseball, and it's not necessarily, nobody does it the same way,” Bummer said.