On Tony Cingrani and Being Stubborn

You guys know me by now. Well, maybe. If you don’t, you will soon as I don’t necessarily have a ton of depth. For the people that do know me, they know that few things describe me better than the word “stubborn”. I was told from an early age I’d be a good lawyer because I was so argumentative, and I rarely gave in (as though that’s how one becomes a lawyer). What those things actually made me was a terrible student, but I digress. Knowing my penchant for sticking to my guns, it should come as no surprise that I heartily agreed with our Benevolent Dictator when he said that Tony Cingrani’s value will never be higher (go to quick hits). Granted he said that before Cingrani’s phenomenal performance against the Nationals, but I stand by it nonetheless. It holds as true today as it did then, which technically makes him (and me) wrong. But I’m not so willing to concede that we weren’t right either.

I talk a lot about process versus product. Not always in my articles, but I try to make a point to bring it up online. I think Bret’s process in coming to the conclusion that Cingrani’s value may never be higher than it was, was very sound. There were a lot of good reasons behind that thought process. It just so happened that Cingrani defied the odds. It’s entirely possible that he will continue to defy the odds and prove all his believers right. All that said, I’m going to sit right here and tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air reiterate that I believe Tony Cingrani ends up as a reliever. Now, there are 18 innings, 28 strikeouts, four walks and three earned runs telling me I’m an idiot. But it’s only 18 innings guys. Let’s not overreact. I’m as tired of typing small sample size as I am of reading it, and thankfully as we plow on into May and June we will start to hear less and less of it, but being tired of it doesn’t invalidate what it means. 18 innings over three games isn’t nothing, but Chris Capuano had a three game stretch last year where he struck out 24 in 25.1 innings while walking four and allowing five earned runs. Not directly comparable, but the point is made.

My biggest reason for doubting a continued run of success for Tony Cingrani is his pitch selection. According to the indispensable Brooks Baseball, Cingrani throws his fastball (a four-seamer) 79% of the time in 2013. For comparison’s sake, Justin Verlander throws his fastball 57% of the time. Justin Masterson throws his sinker and fastball a combined 78% (career). Greg Maddux, ever famous for his two-seam fastball, threw it 64% of the time (career). Think about that. Cingrani is reaching back and throwing a four-seam fastball more than Verlander throws his, more than Maddux threw his two-seamer and more than Masterson (a prominent sinkerballer) throws his top two pitches combined. He’s saying “here’s my fastball, hit it if you can”. And quite simply, they can’t. I got my head out of a spreadsheet, left my mother’s basement and watched the game (on tv) on Sunday, and I can’t quite figure what I saw. Cingrani was putting up fastballs in the 92-94 MPH range (Brooks has his fastball at 92.52) and it seemed like every single hitter was late on the pitch. It was truly bizarre. Now, part of that can be explained by the fact that Cingrani has a deceptive delivery and hides the ball well, so it gets on hitters a little sooner than they’d expect. But you’d also expect that the second and third times through the order, they might adjust. It’s also important to note that Cingrani was able to put the ball just about anywhere he pleased. He was painting the black with frequency, and that type of control will certainly allow a fastball to play up.

My other reason for doubting a continued run of success for Cingrani is that not enough has changed since the offseason when we last calibrated our perception of him. It’s April 30. He has had an absolutely stunning run, and I’m not trying to take anything away from him, nor do I wish this run to end. That said, if you’re changing your perception of a player and their ceiling based on 18 innings and 300 some odd pitches, there are bigger problems afoot. When scouts look at prospects, what they do is compare them to all the other guys they’ve seen and how those players have turned out. This may be a conscious effort and it may not. Most do it internally. It’s what “frame of reference” is all about. That’s why people such as Keith Law, who has been steadfast in his appraisal of Cingrani, might appear stubborn. That’s why Bret, is willing to appear foolish in the midst of a run of dominance. That’s why I am writing this whole dang column. Because we’ve never quite seen a pitcher like Cingrani before. Sure, we’ve seen big fastballs and deceptive fastballs, and big, deceptive fastballs. But we haven’t seen someone throwing a big, deceptive fastball damn near 80% of the time, much less be a starter, much less be a successful starter. Because we haven’t seen someone do it before, it’s hard to accept as a reasonable thing to predict. Players who break the mold suffer that burden; we need them to prove it to us every step of the way. And sometimes they do! That’s what’s fun and exciting about baseball. What we have seen before is a player take the league by storm his first time through, getting by on stuff and deception, but fall short his second or third time through the league, as professional hitters do what they do: adjust. So while no one is saying it’s impossible for Tony Cingrani to dominate the league using basically one pitch, we are I am saying it’s improbable.

According to FanGraphs the only two starters who throw their fastball more than Cingrani are Ross Detwiler and Bartolo Colon, who are striking out 4.6 and 5.4 per nine innings respectively. Cingrani sits at 14 per nine. One of these things is not like the other. So if myself and others appear slow to adjust our evaluation or perception of Cingrani or the next great hype, know that there’s some logic behind it. It’s not that we’re not excited or that we have some personal vendetta or that we’re stupid (though certainly any or all can be possible), it’s just that changing an evaluation should require lots and lots of information, and we’re just in the process of gathering that info. With every start, more of me believes that Tony Cingrani can be a starting pitcher in this league. I do not think he’ll be an ace, and if pressed would still say that closer is the best role for him. I’m going to say that because the process that resulted in that evaluation was sound. If he becomes more than that, it’s a) great and b) variance. Call me stubborn, call me pig-headed, argumentative or just plain wrong. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Call me any and all of those things, but know there’s a reason that I’m willing to call a guy who has a 14 K/9 as a starter a future reliever.

You can follow me on Twitter at @cdgoldstein
You can read my other work at Fake Teams and MLB Draft Insider

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16 comments on “On Tony Cingrani and Being Stubborn

  1. Shawn says:

    Fantastic points. The one problem is that as “scouts” we do not see the action from the perception of the batters box. I think we could really be downplaying the deception that is occurring. Jered Weaver throws in the high 80′s but so much of his success is based on command and deception. Your correct in the fact the league might catch up or adjust but we haven’t seen evidence of that at any level yet. Now of course he is at the highest level and if it happens, this is where it will be. But we haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. I can’t get out of my head the difference between Gerrit Cole and Cingrani. Cole has a fantastic array of pitches and most scouts love him. But we simply don’t see the results. Cingrani isn’t nearly as highly rated but the results have always been there. So at the end of the day, do we trust the potential of Cole or the results of Cingrani? I know my answer.

    • Craig Goldstein says:

      I’m not sure I agree. Yes, Jered Weaver gets by with less (and less) stuff due to deception, but the point of the article is to say…how many Jered Weavers are there? How confident are you that Cingrani is Jered Weaver? I’m not confident. I acknowledge the possibility, but I question the probability of it.

      You bring up Cole which is interesting. He’s often knocked for lacking the results that his stuff would imply he’d get, but look at his statistical results. Aside from a 1 game stint in AAA last year, he’s never produced an ERA over 3, and (over full seasons) has never struck out below 9 per nine innings.

      You say we haven’t seen evidence that the league might catch up, but the context of my statements were that the league would need to see him a second or third time. So obviously we haven’t seen it yet – that was the impetus of writing this piece.

      • Shawn says:

        This is obviously a great debate that is occurring in many fantasy baseball leagues. The Jered Weaver “comp” by me is based on the tools that both use to get hitters out – command and deception rather then velocity and stuff.

        I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that with the pitches Cole has he has been disappointing at the minor league level – K rate or not. He remains too hittable for a SP that has the arsenal that he does. When compared to the results that Cingrani has it really isn’t close.

        My response was based on how people evaluate talent. Sometimes it’s a potential based evaluation and other times it’s a results based evaluation. My evaluation process is much more results based at various minor league levels then yours is. I don’t think Cingrani will win the Cy Young but I’m going to give him time as a SP before I preemptively value him as a RP.

      • Craig Goldstein says:

        That’s fair, and I hear what you’re saying, but I guess my point is that for pitchers to succeed based largely on deception is exceedingly rare. Yes, Weaver’s velo isn’t great, but he does have some very good secondaries (better than Cingrani) and he throws his fastball (all type, even added up) significantly less.

        I also have to quibble with the idea that Weaver doesn’t use velocity and stuff. Weaver’s velocity might not look the part but given that he’s 6’7 and releasing the ball closer to the plate, it’s definitely going to play up. Of course deception plays a part in this too, and I’ve already touched on that regarding Cingrani. Clearly he has it, in spades, but that doesn’t mean hitters won’t catch up and to assume they won’t is dangerous. On top of which, look at Weaver’s k/9 and the like… If Cingrani regresses to those types of numbers, what type of pitcher will he be? (Not to mention that Weaver’s curve has been a positive pitch in terms of pitch values per FanGraphs, while Cingrani is almost all fastball). I guess my main concern with Cingrani boils down to an over-reliance on the fastball and it’s a fastball that doesn’t move like you’d want it to given the amount he uses it. Yes, he places it extremely well and yes he hides it extremely well, but I think Major League hitters catch up to that.

        I’d also like to clarify that I’m not saying I’d shift him to the bullpen were I given that authority. I would absolutely leave him in the rotation until it doesn’t work. This article was just a way of asking “is it reasonable to anticipate Cingrani succeeding in the rotation (or at this level) for the long haul?”

      • Craig Goldstein says:

        Also, if it wasn’t clear from the article, I love this type of discussion and I don’t mean to come off as argumentative. It’s all an interesting discussion to me.

      • Shawn says:

        This is a great discussion and what makes the evaluation process fun. I’m looking forward to what happens over the next few months with Cingrani to see if we have an outlier – as I suspect – or if he reverts back to what the typical evaluation process would suggest.

  2. DIon says:

    Having watched (on TV) his first and last MLB start, I saw a ton of improvement, including with his curve–he threw some nasty ones in his last appearance. As his command of the deuce improves and improves, as it needs to but as it appears to be doing already, all this talk of him being too reliant will fade away. He may not be an ace, but I see him as a very big fantasy asset–a high K SP on a very good team.

    • Craig Goldstein says:

      He was just as reliant on it in the minor leagues, and while there may have been improvement in the curve, it’s very slurvy and it’s really not a major league out pitch at the moment. Also, you say “as the command of the deuce improves and improves” and I’d just caution that player and pitch development is rarely linear. It might have improved from the last time you saw it but that doesn’t mean it will get better every time out or that it won’t stall out in the future. What I didn’t even bring up was how hard it was to turn a lineup over 3 times with only two pitches, which will only become harder as the book gets out on him. Again, none of this is to say Cingrani *can’t* do these things. But he has a lot of odds stacked against him.

  3. DIon says:

    Too reliant on the fastball that is.

  4. DIon says:

    He was pretty darn good in the minors too for that matter! Well it’s a fun debate. But I am real happy I am the one who plucked him from our FA wire as soon as Cueto went down. I like Price as a pitching coach and while Cingrani’s improvement may not be linear, I think overall he will only get better and better until somewhere down the line he hits his ceiling. He is just starting out in the bigs and so far he has been pretty dominant. The league will make adjustments but so will he and he will continue the overall arc of development and improving his secondary pitches. I love his chances.

    • Craig Goldstein says:

      Well yes, but again, can that skillset translate to the major leagues for an extended period of time? Minor league bats and major league bats are very different.

      Again, not to be argumentative but I have to ask:

      When you say ” I think overall he will only get better and better until somewhere down the line he hits his ceiling. He is just starting out in the bigs and so far he has been pretty dominant. The league will make adjustments but so will he and he will continue the overall arc of development and improving his secondary pitches. I love his chances.”

      Can I ask for reasons why? I do think he’ll make some adjustments, but I also think it’s dangerous to say he’ll get better and better. He’s pretty much outpitched his ceiling thus far, so there’s regression to be had. On top of that, it’s not so simple to add major league quality pitches to one’s arsenal. Again, career development isn’t always linear and doesn’t always move forward. I’m not entirely disagreeing. I think he’s a hell of a player and a very good arm… there are a lot of caution flags here, is all I’m saying.

  5. DIon says:

    For the most part, you cannot develop speed or often command. You can, however, learn to refine and trust and use secondary pitches. I think he will. He has a ++ fastball. He has great command on his fastball. He has an intangible it factor that has allowed him to pitch incredibly well in the bigs already. I am simply betting that the Reds will invest the time necessary for a talent like that to develop an average to better secondary pitch (or two–he has been throwing changes as well) and that he will be able to do it. He’s been very successful to date and why would I bet against him now, he is so young and with great results in the majors to date. Not saying he will be Kershaw. But a Cole Hamels caliber guy, I can see that for sure.

    • I’ve been enjoying watching these comments from afar, but I’m going to jump in a make a few points which I think are important here:

      1) It’s not a foregone conclusion that a pitcher will improve his secondary stuff as he gets older. The biggest issue with Cingrani is that his arm slot (which is low for a starting pitcher) may just leave him unable to produce a quality breaking ball. It’s not something that every pitcher can just learn.

      2) There is a lot of deception in his delivery, which is a very big deal, especially when hitters are seeing him for the first time. That is why he’s been able to get so many strikeouts, while relying so much on his fastball. Major league hitters are extremely talented and will make adjustments as they see him more. The problem is that we don’t know if Cingrani is capable of making those next adjustments, as he’s never needed to in his professional career.

      3) Regardless of opinions on Cingrani, don’t do Cole Hamels like that. He’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the last seven season and is a front-line starter. He not only has a great fastball and command of it, he also has a fantastic change-up and two other solid secondaries in a cutter and a curveball. Cingrani in time may learn a cutter as that may be a better fit for his arm slot, but he would have to be a very extreme outlier to be as valuable as Cole Hamels.

      I love to see the back and forth here, as it means that it’s a great topic to discuss. And Cingrani will absolutely be a guy I’m watching very closely as he gets further and further into the season. Again, to reiterate, like Craig I’m not saying it’s impossible that Cingrani develops into a great fantasy starter, I’m just saying that the odds of it are not great.

  6. Zac says:

    Great discussion, I traded him for Jose Fernandez in my dynasty league a couple days before his start against the Nationals. I know Fernandez’ stuff/secondary pitches is way nastier but living in the Reds market and having watched all Cingrani’s starts, it’s pretty impressive how he just seems to keep missing bats with basically one pitch that doesn’t even move all that much.

    Made the trade because knowing Dusty he could keep it up for 4 more starts in a row and still get sent back down or head to the pen…do you think it was a good decision to make that deal? Also what kind of numbers do you expect from Jo-Fer rest of season and next couple years. Thanks in advance!

  7. Matt says:

    Is Almora and Taijuan Walker enough, too much or too little to get Matt Holliday?

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