Analysis Might Have Saved Tony Cingrani

Every team that ever trades is rolling the dice. Nothing in baseball has ever been certain, and so to make a trade is to gamble. But the gamble, typically, is that the player being traded for will continue to perform as he has. At least, this is how it is with veterans. The Astros gambled that Justin Verlander would keep on pitching like Justin Verlander. The Angels gambled that Justin Upton would keep on hitting like Justin Upton. The Yankees gambled that Sonny Gray would keep on pitching like Sonny Gray. Over any full season, you never know what a player’s going to do. When you narrow to just a few months, the volatility only increases.

There’s nothing to be done about that kind of gamble. You can’t make sample-based uncertainty certain. You just hope a player’s talent level will shine through. But more rarely, a team will make a different kind of gamble. A gamble on a player the team thinks it can fix. Needless to say, the teams aren’t always right. Every team already tries to get the most out of the players it has. Yet the Dodgers, in July, thought they saw something in Tony Cingrani, and so far, they’re looking brilliant. Nobody’s noticed, but Cingrani’s kicked it up.

In part, the Cingrani move is a victim of timing. Just as the Dodgers were trading for Cingrani, they were also trading for Tony Watson and, far more visibly, Yu Darvish. You couldn’t blame people for ignoring the Cingrani acquisition, and it was kind of a low-stakes move, anyway. The Dodgers don’t need Cingrani. They just had an inkling. They even allowed said inkling to go public. The Dodgers didn’t swing the deal because they wanted Tony Cingrani to keep on pitching like Tony Cingrani and his 4+ career ERA. They wanted him to pitch differently. It was an acquisition of raw talent, and not performance. It made Cingrani something like a 28-year-old, MLB veteran prospect.

I’ll excerpt from a Bill Plunkett article from August 3. Everybody was really quite honest about the plan.

“Basically, the gist I got was use my slider more and use my fastball in different locations,” Cingrani said before getting the full briefing Thursday afternoon, his first day with his new team. “I don’t really know what they have for analytics. But I’m excited to see what they have because it’s pretty aggressive.”

As far as baseball analytics are concerned, the Dodgers as an organization are among the most sophisticated in the league. They were certainly positioned to tell Cingrani more about himself than the Reds, who continue to lag behind. The Dodgers identified a couple of things. They figured Cingrani could be better if he made two adjustments. One, throw more sliders. Two, move the fastballs elsewhere. Simple enough, when you look at it like that.

For quick background, flash back to February. Cingrani had already been working on a sharper slider, or, if you prefer, a cutter. This season, in the majors, when Cingrani has thrown a slider, he’s thrown a pitch that’s a few miles per hour faster than his slider used to be. He’s also thrown a pitch with a few inches less sink than the slider used to have. Cingrani had already sort of adopted a different breaking ball, with the Reds. The Dodgers have worked to bring it out.

This is what the slider looks like.

Cingrani’s highest-ever season slider rate was 13%. At the time of the trade at the end of July, Cingrani’s slider rate was 3%. With the Dodgers, it’s been 28%. Since the beginning of August, no pitcher in baseball has reduced his fastball rate as much as Cingrani has. Cingrani used to be mostly a one-pitch pitcher. It was one of the traits that put him on the map earlier in his career, when he was generating a bunch of strikeouts against high-level competition. Several articles were written about whether Cingrani could succeed with but one single weapon. The Dodgers are actively changing that approach. And, coincidentally, here are Cingrani’s slider strike rates, by year.

  • 2013: 48% strikes
  • 2014: 47%
  • 2015: 48%
  • 2016: 47%
  • 2017: 62%

Cingrani is now locating the hard slider more consistently, which is causing opponents to give it more respect. It’s no longer a pitch they can ignore, and maybe it’s gotten better because of the increased repetitions alone. I’m not sure, but for one reason or another, the slider is playing up.

And there was that other part, the part about the fastball. Here is the fastball.

The Dodgers wanted to see the fastball spotted differently. I’m going to borrow from Baseball Savant. Here are Cingrani’s 2017 fastballs, with the Reds and with the Dodgers. These heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective.

Cingrani has moved his fastballs significantly arm-side, and significantly up. He was already more of an elevated-fastball guy than he was a sinker-baller, but since the trade, Cingrani’s average fastball has moved about four inches toward the arm side, and about four inches up. Cingrani wouldn’t be the first pitcher the Dodgers wanted to see elevate the fastball more often, so this fits within an organizational pattern. The Dodgers don’t only trade for good players. They’ve traded for a few players who could be potentially good, even at the major-league level, and they’ve found success with guys like Grant Dayton and Josh Fields.

Years ago, there was a similar story about the Rays trading for Drew Smyly, because they liked how they thought his fastball could play up. Smyly indeed made immediate adjustments, and Cingrani fits that same idea. Only, with him, it’s half about moving the fastballs, and half about throwing fewer of them. It should go without saying it’s too early to declare this a rousing success, but among everyone who’s faced at least 50 batters since the beginning of August, Cingrani ranks eighth in baseball in K-BB%. He’s showing the signs the Dodgers wanted to see, and even if he doesn’t make this year’s playoff roster, he’s under control another two more years. Tony Cingrani and his power arm could be a versatile bullpen weapon for a while.

Maybe not. Maybe it’ll all come crashing down. Dayton, for example, was having a rough 2017, before needing surgery. But so far, so good. The Dodgers acquired Tony Cingrani on a hunch, a hunch that the Reds weren’t maximizing the productivity they could get. The Dodgers seem to have found the right tweaks for the right player.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

The Reds are about the last team that can afford to give away young, effective pitchers.

6 years ago
Reply to  Zonk

Well, they gave up on a 28-year old with a 7.01 FIP (albeit in 23.1 IP).

6 years ago
Reply to  Zonk

That’s what makes them the Reds.