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Tony Cingrani Hearts the Fastball

When teams determine whether a pitcher is going to be a future reliever or a starter, one of the primary factors driving the decision is how many Major League quality pitches the hurler throws. Typically, a starting pitcher will have a larger repertoire of pitches at his disposal, primarily to neutralize opposite-handed hitters. We think of relief pitchers possessing two pitches, while starters generally throw at least three. But Tony Cingrani is built from a different mold. It seems that Mr. Cingrani hearts the fastball.

You see, Cingrani posted the 18th highest fastball percentage among all Major League pitchers who threw at least 10 innings. That might not sound so outrageous, but if you only include starters, he sits third with his 81.1% rate. Ross Detwiler, Bartolo Colon and Cingrani were the only three starters to throw their fastballs at least 80% of the time. It’s rare and not typically the blueprint for long-term success.

But not only did Cingrani throw his fastball more than 8 times out of every 10 pitches, but he thrived doing so. He recorded just 104.2 innings, yet still managed to rank 55th in fantasy value among all starting pitchers. The results were quite impressive, especially since he was a rookie, and because he relied on just one pitch so heavily.

Amazingly, it didn’t appear that the league figured him out either. Heck, opposing batters essentially knew what was coming, yet they had major trouble making contact. Cingrani’s monthly strikeout rates after a crazy April that saw him post a 40% mark were extremely consistent, with just a small decline in May.

What’s even more incredible is how Cingrani has such a strong history of high strikeout rates, yet the average fastball induces the lowest rate of swings and misses among all pitch types. Earlier I mentioned Detwiler and Colon as the only two pitchers who threw their fastball more often. Detwiler has typically struck out between 12% and 15% of opposing hitters throughout his career, while Colon’s strikeout rate has sat around 14% to 15% in three of the last four seasons. You find more strikeout guys when you drop into the low-70% range in fastball percentage, but that’s nearly 10% below Cingrani’s rate.

Cingrani’s fastball generated a SwStk% of 10.5%, which is the highest I have seen. What’s interesting is that his full-season SwStk% is actually below that, so his off-speed pitches brought that rate down. That’s not something you see very often! It’s usually the fastball that generates the low SwStk% and the usage of breaking/off-speed pitches that result in strikeouts and swings and misses.

Of course, there is an explanation. Cingrani’s delivery is deceptive and when a hitter has trouble picking up the ball, he’s liable to swing and miss. But deception is something that usually doesn’t last. Look at Hideo Nomo! Eventually, hitters will adjust and Cingrani will have no choice but to develop his other pitches and throw them more frequently.

Cingrani’s skill set is very troublesome for a pitcher at risk of a tumbling strikeout rate. He was an extreme fly ball pitcher this season and his control was sub-par. The upside is clearly there as there is nothing that hints at a severe decline being imminent just yet. Cingrani is a unique case though and has little to fall back on if hitters do catch up and figure him out.

He should open the season as a member of the Reds rotation, but might not necessarily be overvalued in fantasy leagues. After all, he was quite a surprise, plus, he only pitched a smidge over 100 innings and his season ended prematurely due to a back injury. I cannot recommend avoiding him, but it’s important to be aware of the risks here and not pay for a guaranteed future ace.