The Subtle Improvement of Trevor Cahill

Trevor Cahill has mostly been a disappointment in fantasy leagues. Much of that has to do with lofty expectations from his owners following a lofty 2009 prospect ranking. Cahill happened to win a spot in the Oakland Athletics’ rotation that season, but wound up disappointing, failing to carry his above-average strikeout numbers in the minors to Oakland. An inability to record strikeouts has been Cahill’s major flaw over his four big league seasons. Last season, Cahill made some strides in that area, posting the highest strikeout rate of his career, which contributed to his strongest season to date. While Cahill is far from a fantasy ace, the improvement could make him a solid mid-to-late round pick this season.

One of the biggest reasons for Cahill’s career-high strikeout rate last season, seems to be the development of a cutter. The pitch has been mistaken for a slider on some pitch tracking systems, but it comes in at about 85 mph, two ticks faster than Cahill’s slider. Cahill wasn’t shy using the pitch, especially against right-handed hitters. Outside of his sinker, the cutter was Cahill’s second most used pitch against righties. In two strike situations, Cahill used the pitch 20% of the time. It seemed to keep righties off balance, too. His strikeout rate against right-handers jumped to 20.2% last year, a career-high. While the pitch is still labeled a slider according to PITCH f/x, it rated as Cahill’s best pitch last season using pitch type values.

The addition of a cutter helped Cahill’s other secondary offerings as well. Because Cahill now had another weapon to neutralize righties, hitters couldn’t sit sinker of change-up anymore. His usage with the pitch against right-handers dropped from 17% to 13% last season because of the cutter. Whether it’s due to his cutter, or just plain improvement, Cahill had much more success with his change-up last year. In 2011, batters hit .295 against Cahill’s change with a .455 slugging percentage. Those numbers plummeted to a .191 average and a .355 slugging percentage in 2012.

Cahill’s usage of those pitches has come at the expense of his curveball. While Cahill’s curveball was often thought to be his big strikeout pitch, it rated as his worst pitch according to pitch type value during his first three seasons in the league. His usage decreased from 13.6% in 2010 and 2011, to just 7.1% in 2012. It actually may have helped, as Cahill finally had a positive type value with his curve last year.

Cahill is not an elite command guy, so he needs to have a decent strikeout percentage in order to be an effective fantasy pitcher. With his increased rate last season, he definitely had value. And since his FIP matched up with his solid ERA, there’s reason to believe he can do it again. At age-25, there’s still some hope for a little more improvement, actually. In late September, Mike Podhorzer outlined pitchers who were due for a strikeout surge. He concluded that, based on Cahill’s SwStk%, he should have been striking out more batters. People seem to be focused more on what Cahill couldn’t do his first couple of years in the majors. But he’s slowly increased his strikeout rate to an acceptable level, and there’s evidence that a new approach played a big role in that improvement. He’s far from an ace, but he may have become an undervalued asset in fantasy leagues.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

3 Responses to “The Subtle Improvement of Trevor Cahill”

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  1. rotobanter says:

    You have to talk about his awesome Batted Balls In Play trends – hardcore increase in GB%; great decresase in FB%; better than league avg in LD%. Even if ARZ park factors hurt his HR/FB & other luck-related factors, these trends should neutralize that. K/BB jumped in ’12 and if this stays in the positive direction, we’re talking about a major sleeper here (unless ’12 was his ceiling)…

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  2. OaktownSteve says:

    I watched Cahill quite a bit with the A’s and it was pretty clear to me what happened to him in his development. During his 2010 season, he had a lot of success with his two seam fastball (sidebar here, pitch f/x seems to have correctly identified the two seamer in 2009 but from 2010 forward started calling it a sinker but lists the avg velocity around 90 mph so it’s obviously the two seam). Pitch f/x win value showed it as +25.8 for 2010 and a -4 for 2011. I saw the league write a book on how to approach Cahill and it was basically do not swing at the two seamer and rip away at anything else. The two seam had a tremendous amount of movement and he had no ability to command it in the strike zone. I watched him struggle in 2011 trying to pitch backwards with a lot of first pitch curveballs and change ups (which he also doesn’t command well) and get into deep counts where he was forced to throw something a little straighter.

    What jumps out at me from last year is that the first pitch strike percentage went up to a career best 62.9% and that most likely allowed him to keep hitters off balance with the new assortment of pitches. The cutter is a nice choice as it is easier to locate than the two seam but still has better movement that the 4 seam, which like most two seamer guys he throws reluctantly and not well. The other thing is that there has been a slight decrease in the movement of the two seam over the last few years. I think as he’s matured, he’s realizing that he doesn’t need to get maximum movement out of that pitch.

    It’s interesting to see him add a pitch and to change his mix a little. I’ve been interested in watching how guys who have oh wow two seamers seem to struggle a bit without a nice assortment of complimentary pitches. Ubaldo, Fausto Carmona and others are young pitchers whose stuff makes them seem can’t miss but who don’t seem to progress enough as pitchers with command and pitch assortment to succeed.

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  3. rotobanter says:

    Thanks oaktown…appreciate the realtime insight, and along with the post, probably the main relationship to the great trend

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