Midnight Player of the Week, 9/16 – 9/22: Andrew Cashner, Padres SP

Last Week:

  • (9/16 @ PIT) – 9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K, 0 BB, W
  • (9/22 vs. LAD) – 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R (0 ER), 7 K, 0 BB, L

These were Andrew Cashner’s last two starts of the season. The Padres shut him down today because they value his young arm, which just now seems to be actualizing its vast potential. It’s taken four years and two teams, but Cashner’s electric stuff is worth the trouble. By trouble, I mean a little labyrinth of trades and transactions: franchise player Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo; Rizzo gets called up, but his pull power doesn’t play in Petco Park like it does in the PCL; front-line starter Mat Latos to the Reds for first-base prospect Yonder Alonso; LOGJAM!; Rizzo to the Cubs for then-relief pitcher Andrew Cashner.

The Cashner trade seemed like a last, desperate gasp from a beleaguered Padres’ front office. Essentially, it took them a little over a year to flip one of the game’s ten best hitters for a fireballing but wild reliever who was just coming off a shoulder injury. The Cubs had tried to transition him into the rotation in 2011, but he strained his rotator cuff before he could get to the seventh inning of his first game. So in 2012 the Padres were content to keep to Cashner in the bullpen for a little while, where he could loose his fastball at triple-digit speeds and mix in an offspeed pitch at about 87 mph. Slider to righties, changeup to lefties. The results were passable: in 26 innings of relief, Cashner struck out 29, walked 16, giving up 23 hits and a 3.81 ERA.

That June, the Padres sent him down for three weeks to stretch him out. Like the Cubs, they couldn’t resist his potential as a starter. Like the Cubs, they were foiled by injury. On his third start in the majors, Cashner strained his upper dorsimus back. He came back in September to reduced velocity and a sore tendon. You would be excused for thinking that maybe Cashner just didn’t have the endurance for a starting role.

It’s now 175 innings later, and Cashner has put those concerns to rest for a while. Aside from his health, the main difference for Cashner this season is his sinker. An almost nonexistent part of his repertoire a year ago, the sinker is now the pitch he throws second most after the four seam. Numbers-wise, it’s an increase from 4.18 to 22.02 percent of all pitches thrown. Unlike most sinkers, Cashner’s doesn’t seem any slower than his fastball. It’s average velocity this year is 94.57 mph. Even so, only 11 right-handed starting pitchers have more horizontal break on their sinkers. Here is the first .gif I’ve ever made, taken from Cashner’s start yesterday against the Dodgers.

thegif

This took forever.

Cashner is helped by a nice frame, to be sure. But that pitch started over the chalk on the opposite batter’s box and made it back to the outside corner. In this game, the sinker averaged 95.86 mph and 10.26 inches of horizontal movement toward the right-handed hitter. It topped out at 99.44 mph. Just one more hundredth of a mile per hour, and you could have rounded it up to 99.5, which you could then have rounded up to 100 and felt only a little dirty. That pitch is a weapon. In his two starts last week, Cashner basically abandoned his four seam and relied on his sinker. This list of pitch types by start demonstrates the ascendance of his sinker since April.

His slider and changeup bear mentioning, of course; they are necessary for his success. We know that offspeed pitches keep hitters off balance. A good way to visualize the difference is with a graph like the one below, which plots pitch speed against the order of pitches in any given start. This one shows the pitches from Cashner’s complete-game, minimum-batters-faced masterpiece against the Pirates last Monday.

 

Pirates hitters regularly faced pitches that were 10 mph slower or faster than the previous pitch. Most pitchers in the major leagues strive to do this, of course. Also of course, it’s rare for a starter to do this with a fastball that sits at 95. Because hitters have to sit fastball and adjust to anything else, Cashner employs the changeup and slider (the slider especially) as out pitches. He uses the slider most when he is ahead against righties, and one of every three swings against the slider are whiffs.

The biggest surprise about Cashner might be that, despite the gas and the gaudy slider, he’s only striking out 6.58 hitters per nine innings. A number fitting for Dillon Gee or Wade Miley, but surely out of character for a flamethrowing, full-bearded Texan. We can reasonably expect that figure to rise next season. Cashner succeeded without it this season partly because his sinker generated plenty of groundballs, as sinkers do (67 percent, GB/BIP on that sinker). Chase Headley is one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. Jedd Gyorko has handled the transition to second well and shown good range there. Everth Cabrera will be back from suspension, and his speed plays well at short. Yonder Alonso grades well at first. Next year, Cashner will be 27 years old, in his physical prime. He has the stuff to blow it by hitters, a knack for getting ground balls, and fielders behind him who are all, as major leaguers go, above average at converting ground balls into outs. It took a while, but it seems the Padres got an ace out of Adrian Gonzalez trade.

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