Tony Cingrani is going to the Reds bullpen, having already been ruled out of the Cincinnati starting competition. If that’s a surprise, it’s only because after they shed Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos over the winter, the team might now actually start the season with one (or both!) of Paul Maholm and Jason Marquis in the rotation. As Dave Cameron laid out yesterday, that’s absolutely no way for a team on the fringes of contention to be operating.
Cingrani isn’t pleased about it, but let’s be honest and admit that he seemed like a future reliever from the day he set foot in the big leagues. In a short cameo at the end of 2012, he threw 90% fastballs. In 104.1 innings in 2013, he threw 81% fastballs, trying desperately to find a useable second pitch. Last year, he got that down to 73%, but he also missed a considerable portion of the season with a shoulder injury, not pitching at all after June 19.
Or, put another way:
Fastball usage, 2013-14, min. 150 IP (179 total pitchers)
Cingrani’s ahead, and not by a little. It’s pretty difficult to be a major league starter when you rely so heavily on only a single pitch, at least if you’re not Bartolo Colon. It’s harder when you don’t have great control (career 11.1% walk rate), do have a home run issue (1.40 HR/9), and have shown difficulty working deep into games (16 of his 29 career starts haven’t made it through six innings).
Add that to what the Reds surely know about the condition of his shoulder that the rest of us can’t, and there’s more than enough evidence to at least understand the move, if not necessarily support it given what it leaves in the rotation. (Although, that they would do it despite the condition of their rotation perhaps says enough on its own.)
Now, “Relatively unproven starter with questionable health loses shot to be a fifth starter” isn’t exactly noteworthy on its own, but Cingrani isn’t exactly a generic journeyman pitcher, either. For all the things he might be doing wrong, he’s absolutely been able to miss bats right alongside some pretty impressive names…
K%, 2013-14, min. 150 IP
… and remember that one of those seasons not only ended early due to the shoulder injury, but had a 15-day May stint on the disabled list due to back trouble.
You probably know where this is going, now. Teams have gotten a lot of recent mileage out of turning failed starters into dominant relievers. That’s been true historically — hi, Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, and countless others — but it’s felt especially prominent now. Before the Royals did it with Davis, they did it with Luke Hochevar. The Orioles started Zach Britton 46 times before giving up and getting a great 2014 season of relief. Brett Cecil made 74 mostly fruitless starts for Toronto. Andrew Miller spent most of five seasons trying to start before figuring it out in the bullpen. You get the picture.
Now, there’s Cingrani, and you know how this usually works. Starters who convert to the bullpen not only often enjoy a boost in velocity, they get to toss aside pitches that aren’t working. Miller, for example, ditched his ineffective change in favor of a strict diet of fastballs and sliders. We haven’t seen a ton of Cingrani in relief — only seven games — but you don’t have to squint all that hard to see that both benefits could be hugely helpful in this case.
Back in 2013, he spent a few weeks of June in the Cincinnati bullpen. You probably didn’t need me to highlight that span in green to notice where the velocity jumped from ~92 to ~95, but hey, I’m here for you.
While that’s a not-at-all-inconsequential jump — it almost mirrors Miller’s, with the obvious caveat that Miller has been a reliever for years, not weeks — what’s maybe most important there is the break in the otherwise steady blue line. That’s the changeup, and while Cingrani has been attempting to work it into the mix more (just under 7% in 2013, just over 12% in 2014), the problem is that it’s just not very good. — or at least, hasn’t been very good. Though Cingrani told Eno Sarris last year that he felt his change was better than his slider, the data has shown exactly the opposite:
Hitters don’t offer at Cingrani’s change, and when they do, they make solid contact, particularly in the zone. It’s not hard to see which swinging strike number looks out of place, or that wRC+ column at the end. The slider even generates more grounders than the change does.
When it’s working, as the slider did here against Evan Longoria after a few fastballs in a row, there’s the potential for a pretty good pitch.
With a nod to the fact that we don’t know how much resistance Cingrani is going to put up to the move, he really seems like the perfect candidate. He’s got one good pitch, maybe two. He’s got good velocity as a starter that could potentially be elite as a reliever from the left side, and there’s enough concern about his durability to make the idea of limiting his workload appealing.
So if you stop asking Cingrani to pace himself, and stop having him worry about pitches that aren’t working, maybe, just maybe, you have something. And if the Reds need anything, it’s “something,” especially with a potentially disappointing season pointing directly to Aroldis Chapman being the most fascinating July trade piece we’ve seen in years. You hope for something good for this team, and while it’s not that Cingrani could never have been a successful starter, the odds — as they are with most any pitcher — are increased in the bullpen. Usually, I dislike the idea of giving up on a young pitcher as a starter before it’s proven they can’t handle it, which Cingrani has not. In this case? Yeah. This makes sense.