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Sizing Up Tony Cingrani

The Reds received a scare when Johnny Cueto was placed on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle. As he returned to Cincinnati for further testing yesterday, the minor leagues’ hottest pitcher took the mound in Louisville awaiting to hear whether he would replace Cincinnati’s ace. In three Triple-A starts, Tony Cingrani destroyed the International League: he struck out 26 batters in 14.1 innings. But is he ready?

Cingrani’s success can be partially attributed to his deceptive delivery. He relies on his long limbs to attack hitters from a low three-quarter arm slot and hide the ball until the last possible moment. Listed at 6-foot-4, he is a “tall-and-fall” pitcher with a short stride, which causes his release point to be farther from the plate than if he had a longer stride. His early release doesn’t aid his deceptiveness, but it’s essential to his effectiveness. When Cingrani releases the pitch, he’s upright. That causes his release point to be high despite a low arm slot, which creates a downward plane.

Cingrani’s low-90s fastball is his best offering and he heavily relies on it. His downward plane and deceptiveness make it a swing-and-miss pitch despite its lack of movement. When Cingrani repeats his delivery, he can spot his fastball to either side of the plate, but at times his short stride cuts off his delivery and he loses his release point.

His reliance on the pitch is supported by PITCHf/x data from his major league debut. Last season PITCHf/x recorded over 85% of his pitches as fastballs. After watching each of his 2013 starts with Triple-A Louisville, that trend hasn’t changed significantly. For reference, in 2012, Justin Masterson and Ross Detwiler led their leagues in fastball percentage by using their heaters 80% of the time. After that pair, the pitchers who used their fastball most frequently were Wade Miley (72%), Gio Gonzalez (71%) and Joe Saunders (71%). In all, there were just 15 starters who threw the pitch more than 65% of the time.

The 23-year-old’s excessive use of his four seamer isn’t by design, it’s out of necessity. In 2012, Cingrani threw a slider and a changeup, but neither were average offerings and he used them sparingly. This year, Cingrani has added an intriguing new 11-5 sweeping curveball. It’s a slow breaker with tight rotation and consistent shape that he can throw for strikes.

With the addition of his curveball, Cingrani’s development is now tied to his changeup and his ability to improve his command. Rarely can one survive as a starting pitcher with fastball and curveball alone, and neither of Cingrani’s offerings is so outstanding to make him an exception. He needs a quality third pitch both to prevent hitters from sitting on his fastball when he’s behind in the count and to use against right handed hitters. Against Triple-A opponents, Cingrani is effectively wild and able to blow his fastball by them. That won’t work for long against major league hitters, who will adjust to his deceptiveness.

Should Johnny Cueto miss a few starts, Cingrani is a capable short-term solution. A promotion to the majors might be best for Cingrani’s development because once major-league hitters adjust to him, he’ll need to make changes if he wants to continue to have success. Thus far, Triple-A batters haven’t challenged Cingrani and he hasn’t had to adapt his approach to be successful.  But Cingrani — who currently projects as a fourth starter — isn’t going to replace Cueto’s productivity if he’s run out there for an extended period of time.