Cahill’s Tough Year

Coming into the season two members of the A’s youthful rotation were particularly exciting to watch. Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson were both top prospects and linked by a host of similarities, both were just 21 years old to start the season, had never pitched above AA and had the rare combination of good ground ball and strikeout numbers. Both pitchers struck out over 8 batters per 9 innings and got over 50% ground balls per ball in play at every level in the minors coming into this year. The big difference is that Anderson combined those skills with excellent walk numbers, while Cahill’s were poor.

That difference as translated to the bigs. Anderson is having an amazing season. By FIP he is the 10th best starter in the AL, an amazing feat for someone of his age and experience. Dave C. and I have each profiled him already (here and here), so I will turn my attention to Cahill’s season.

His ground ball rate is solid (over 47%), but his walk (3.6 per 9) and strikeout (4.6 per 9) numbers have been bad. In fact his K/BB ratio is second worst (again to John Lannan) among qualifying starters. Here is the movement on his pitches.


Like many ground ball pitchers Cahill throws a lot of fastballs (almost 70% of the time), and the problem is he has not been very good at getting them in the zone. His fastballs are in the permissive pfx zone 50% of the time, compared to the 55% for the average fastball. This is one of those things that seems like a small difference but is not. The variation is fastball zone percentage is narrow, so 50% is quite low, and over the course of the whole year those extra balls really pile up.

Cahill has the stuff. His two-seam fastball induces lots of ground balls (55%) while getting an almost average whiff rate (13%) and his good changeup gives him a solid option against lefties. Although this has been a rough year he is very young and with improvement in his command he will be a solid pitcher.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

15 Responses to “Cahill’s Tough Year”

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  1. pm says:

    K rates are overrated. Look at the bottom 10 in K rate and the top 10 K rate. There isn’t a huge difference in their performance. John Lannan is not terrible company to keep. Lannan, Piniero, Duke, Blackburn are not bad pitchers.

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    • Not David says:

      John Lannan, he of the ~5 FIP, in the NL?

      Not the company I’d like to keep.

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      • Nick says:

        His ERA has been consistently much lower than his FIP despite playing alongside terrible defensive teams. I think it’s likely that he is one of those pitchers who can be better than their FIP.

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    • David Foy says:


      Your premise that the bottom 10 in strikeouts are about equal in skill to the top 10 is startlingly false and shows that you failed to even look at the leader boards.

      Top 10
      Justin Verlander
      Tim Lincecum
      Zack Greinke
      Javier Vazquez
      Jon Lester
      Dan Haren
      Felix Hernandez
      Yovani Gallardo
      Josh Beckett
      Adam Wainwright

      Bottom 10
      Jeff Suppan
      John Lannan
      Rick Porcello
      Nick Blackburn
      Trevor Cahill
      Jamie Moyer
      Randy Wells
      Joe Saunders
      Braden Looper
      Zach Duke

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  2. LeeTro says:

    Bill James wrote in his ’03 abstract (p. 289) about the lack of pitchers who were able to have good careers with low K rates their first full year. Piniero and Lannan had higher K rates their first full years. The best case scenario for Cahill as of now is a Scott Erickson type career.

    Using BABIP principles, with the low K rate, Cahill is going to allow a lot of hits. When you add the high BB rate, that’s a whole lot of baserunners. He doesn’t have the GB % to be successful with that much action. The HR rate is a little scary for a sinker-baller. He most likely won’t start striking out guys at a better clip, so walks will have to go down a lot and GB % will have to go up.

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    • Wally says:

      You’re falling into the trap that the population average will be true for an individual and ignoring further information you might have on Cahill and other pitchers.

      When you think about it, is it at all surprising that pitchers that do poorly in their first year usually turn out to be bad pitchers? Not at all. But what’s the difference between a player that has a low K rate in MLB at 21 vs. 25? What about their minor league performance.

      Basically, we can do a better job predicting any individual pitcher than just taking the average of a large group of players that had less than say 5 K/9 in their rookie year. We have a lot more information than that, we should use it.

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      • LeeTro says:

        Despite my comments, my gut feeling is that he will be better than Erickson. He was in the majors at 21, but clearly rushed, meaning he’s not a complete stud. His minor league stats are at the low levels, so there will obviously be some dropoff in rates at the MLB level. He doesn’t make hitters chase, which probably means two things: his sinker was up a lot and his offspeed isn’t sharp. He was average at making them miss, which is encouraging for a sinkerballer.

        It seems like he throws a “normal” fastball along with the power sinker. Guys like Lowe and Webb don’t even bother with fastballs, so I wonder if he should cut out the fastball and stick with the fastball, change and slider. He looks a lot like Webb did at that age. Similar windup, power sinker, change as #2 pitch, BB issues, but Webb had a very good K rate from the beginning and has been over 60% groundballs every year. Cahill can become a very good pitcher, but he’ll have to learn a lot of basics at the MLB level.

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      • LeeTro says:

        Ok, the aforementioned normal fastball is listed as a 4-seamer. Not sure how I missed that before….

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  3. MMfan says:

    Kind of a weird time to criticize cahill, who has been much improved the last month and a half. His huge HR problems earlier isnt a problem anymore. 1 hr given up in his last 45+ innings. for a 21 yr old, he’s progressing. You could argue other than a terrible july and a few bad starts scattered here and there, he’s been decent enough.

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    • Dave Allen says:

      If you take out any pitcher’s worst month AND ‘a few bad starts’ he is almost always going to look good. Cahill doesn’t have any month with a K:BB ratio above 2. I think he will most likely be a good pitcher in the future, but he has had a bad year.

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      • Wally says:

        Dave, I totally agree with you, and don’t support taking out random months or starts (without good reason at least, ie. coming back from injury or getting injured). However, Cahill has seen an improvement from earlier this season. In the first half he had a K/BB of 1.15, in the second half it was 1.45. That’s still not very good, but it is better. In the first half he was giving up an astounding 1.65 Hr/9. Now that’s basically 1. I totally agree Cahill is having a bad year, there is no arguing that, but he is improving.

        It seemed most people that Cahill was not going to be able to make a sooth transition to MLB, basically because of his high BB rates, despite is impressive talent and stuff. He just wasn’t polished enough for MLB. And they were right. His talent is holding him above the water, but he’s just not developed enough. I’d expect that to change in another year or two. Not all rookies can come up and be the 10th best pitcher in the league like Anderson….

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    • Brent says:

      I agree with MMfan here – why do raise the bar so high for rookie pitchers, especially one’s that have skipped AAA. Not only did he pitch well down the stretch, let’s tip our caps to the A’s organization who stuck with him nearly the entire season. This, opposed to other organizations (ahem…NYY) who toy with their pitching prospects.

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  4. pm says:

    If he is the next John Lannan, Billy Beane will be a proud man.

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  5. JK says:

    Wow, a 21 year old who basically skipped all of AA and AAA is not having a great year? Let’s give him a bit of a break, shall we? I’m not sure we can limit him to Scott Erickson just yet.

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  6. Paul Thomas says:

    I suspect he’ll be fine… in 2011.

    In the meantime, he should be where his play indicates he deserves to be– AAA Sacramento. Send him there and tell him to learn, or relearn, a breaking ball. Fastball-changeup does not work for right-handed starting pitchers. You need more variety in your arsenal.

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