Brandon Finnegan Looks Like a Starter

For a good long while Monday night, Reds fans had reason to be encouraged. The team was already off to a strong start, and then it took a lead on the road against the Cubs, with Brandon Finnegan working on a no-hitter. It promptly came undone. Not only did Finnegan not complete the no-hitter — the Reds didn’t complete a shutout, and actually the Reds didn’t even win the damn game, with the Cubs rallying against the vulnerable bullpen. Reality blows, and it probably wasn’t the last time the Cubs will put the Reds away in some kind of dispiriting fashion. In the span of a few innings, Reds fans were reminded that, yeah, the playoffs probably aren’t going to happen.

I mean, I don’t know. The Reds are still 5-2. Bully for them. They don’t seem like a good team, but teams like this have surprised before. I don’t want to step on any playoff dreams, so I’ll go with this: Perhaps my main positive takeaway has been the work of Finnegan as a starter. I don’t think he’ll be pitching this team into October, but he’s pitched like someone who could do that down the road. That young Reds rotation is starting to take some shape.

You’ll recall that the Reds got three different pitchers for Johnny Cueto. Different observers preferred different arms, but Finnegan was an important part of that return, a first-round lefty with big-league experience. There wasn’t much doubt that Finnegan could be successful; the question was whether he’d start or relieve. It’s a question that hangs over many young pitchers, and it often comes down to the development of an offspeed pitch. We’d all seen Finnegan’s heat, and we’d all seen his slider. His mission would be improving the changeup.

Time for graphics! Here are some more plots of pitch speed vs. spin axis. Again, this is just a way I like to tell different pitches apart. This first image is of Finnegan down the stretch as a starter in 2015:


And now here’s Finnegan very early in 2016:


There’s actually more than one thing going on. That cluster toward the lower right — those are sliders. Finnegan is throwing his average slider harder this year than he did last year. He’s no Noah Syndergaard, but it’s a difference of a couple ticks. Now, additionally, look at the highest cluster, which shows the fastballs. A year ago, almost all of them were between spin axes of 100 -150. This year, there’s a cluster to the right of 150, and that shows a four-seamer. So Finnegan still has his sinker, but he’s folded in an alternative he can elevate. Without even touching on the changeup yet, we’ve got a faster breaking ball, and a new, rising fastball. Not bad.

The changeups, though, are below the fastballs. And truth be told, this isn’t the best way to display what I want to get at: Finnegan is throwing his changeup with a ton of confidence. In four starts last season, Finnegan threw 13% changeups. Through two starts this season, he’s just shy of 25%. Against the Cubs, he was at 28%. Finnegan is throwing plenty more changeups, and it’s because he’s locating the pitch better, down and around the plate. With an effective changeup, Finnegan’s starter potential is unlocked.

This is something I think is an important split. We’ll look at starter Finnegan in 2015 and starter Finnegan in 2016, in counts in which Finnegan wasn’t ahead of the hitter. So, when the count was even, or when Finnegan has been behind.

2015: 75% fastballs
2016: 57% fastballs

I think this is a great indicator of confidence, or trust, or whatever. Last year, Finnegan was most comfortable going to his fastball. That would’ve made him predictable. This year, so far, Finnegan hasn’t thrown too many fastballs, even in traditional fastball counts. He clearly has more faith in his change and his slider, and the fuller arsenal makes him better able to go through an order for a third time. With three or, really, four pitches, all Finnegan needs to do now is show he can hold up to the workload. That’s not an easy thing, but the Reds can handle Finnegan with care. You can make sure a pitcher isn’t overworked. You can’t make sure a pitcher takes a step forward with his secondary stuff.

I liked this late matchup between Finnegan and Addison Russell:

Finnegan was tiring, but he still had a no-hitter. On the road in Chicago, he would’ve been feeling incredible pressure. But he succeeded in starting Russell off with a first-pitch change on the black. Then Finnegan tried to bust Russell high and tight with a four-seamer. Back he came with a good low change, and then he went to the high-away quadrant, just missing. At 2-and-2, Finnegan went inside with another four-seamer, but he went too far in and backed Russell off. The next pitch was a virtually perfect low changeup. As was pitch No. 7. Absolutely, the final pitch was borderline, and it could’ve easily led Russell to first on a walk. But that pitch, in that situation, was perfectly executed. Russell didn’t chase, yet Finnegan might not have been able to put that changeup in a better spot.

A late, crucial at-bat, and Finnegan threw four out of seven changeups. He threw a changeup at 0-and-0, 1-and-1, 3-and-2, and 3-and-2. All of the changeups were good. Finnegan was just about out of gas, but he still had it in him to repeat his mechanics. I know that he finished with five walks and five strikeouts, which isn’t good, but he was facing the Cubs. He had to be careful. He already dominated the Phillies, and I think those opponents kind of cancel out.

The signs are good for Brandon Finnegan as a starting pitcher. He’s working now with two fastballs, a slider, and a changeup, and he’s throwing everything with faith. I know I already put this comp on Carlos Rodon, but looking at Finnegan’s present repertoire, it’s again reminiscent of Francisco Liriano. The pitches are there, the speeds are there, and the movements are similar enough. Finnegan isn’t as good as Liriano yet, but it’s within his reach. The Reds should be delighted that he’s gotten even this far.

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

He threw a few changeups down in the count so clearly some faith in it, located the fastball well when he threw it in the zone, if he missed it was down. Was pretty impressive, even Ross hit was a slider below the knees. They have a decent offense if Hamilton hits, the rest of the division is the problem.