It was no secret that I was a huge Andrew Cashner fan heading into the season. You could say that he was my sleeper/undervalued pitcher of the year. I drafted him for my LABR team and Tout Wars squad, shared how upset at myself I would be if he didn’t make it onto every single one of my teams, boldly predicted that he would outearn every starting pitcher on both the Braves and Mets pitching staffs and lead the National League in ERA, and was most bullish on his fantasy value compared to the rest of the RotoGraphs rankers. And yet, despite posting a fantastic 3.09 ERA and ranking 41st among starting pitchers in fantasy value, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.
You see, I am most intrigued by the ground-balling strikeout artists who just need to sharpen their control in order to experience a major breakout. Though, Cashner would have been just fine without any control improvement, so Edinson Volquez is a better example of the type of pitcher I am referring to. That said, the shape of Cashner’s performance was not what I expected and makes me slightly less optimistic about his future. He is no longer the type of pitcher that so excites me.
We all know that a pitcher is going to lose fastball velocity upon transitioning from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Cashner was no exception, but since he threw so hard as a reliever, he still managed to average 94.5 mph as a starter. Among qualified starters, that velocity ranked fifth in baseball. So he still threw really hard and featured a nearly identical pitch mix to his 2012 season, at least according to the BIS data. Yet, both his SwStk% and strikeout percentage plummeted. His looking strike rate did jump to a career high, but I found earlier in the year that its correlation with strikeout rate is tiny.
So what happened? Well for one, the velocity on his slider declined. That may have just been in lock-step with the fastball velocity drop or perhaps a conscious decision to take something off in order to improve his control of the pitch. But, the SwStk% on the pitch was actually a tick above his 2012 mark, while he threw the pitch inside the strike zone more often. So that doesn’t seem to be the culprit.
The likely explanation is his usage of a two-seam fastball. PITCHf/x suggests that he just started throwing the pitch this year and typically pitchers use it to induce ground balls. That’s exactly what happened here, as the pitch generated a 65.4% ground ball rate, but also resulted in the lowest SwStk% in his repertoire. From a real baseball perspective, that wasn’t such a bad decision, but strikeouts are a fantasy category and throwing more two-seamers is not going to boost that total.
Another issue was his change-up, a pitch that historically had resulted in SwStk% marks in the mid-to-high teens. This year that rate slipped below 10%. Maybe slower fastball velocity hampered the change-up’s effectiveness. But the bottom line is that given his outwardly good stuff, you would expect much better strikeout rates going forward. However, you’ll be taking a leap of faith that his SwStk% rebounds because it was below the league average this year, which completely supports that decline in strikeout rate.
Aside from the hope that his strikeout rate rebounds, one also has to be concerned about his walk rate. I cannot imagine anyone believing that a 2.4 BB/9 was possible, and a league average F-Strike% suggests that it was more luck than a real step forward in control. Furthermore, Cashner’s BABIP sat at just .269, which artificially deflated his BB/9 (and K/9) as he had fewer opportunities to walk batters in an inning.
Overall, Cashner’s 3.80 SIERA was well above his actual ERA and I’m not so sure his overall skills are going to improve that much next season. Playing in front of a weak Padres offense will keep his price down, but he could very well be overvalued at drafts, at which point he’ll need a strikeout rate spike just to break even for his owners.
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