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.