So much talk of tanking. So much talk about teams allegedly not trying to win. I don’t really buy into the narrative so much — I think front offices, at least, are more urgently competitive than ever. But I will say there are a few teams in position to think about blowing it up. The Marlins? The Marlins have mostly already blown it up. Their rebuild is underway. I don’t really know exactly where the Tigers are. I know they’re not good. And then there are the Orioles. If there’s a trend, the Orioles have defied it. There’s a strong case to be made that the Orioles should have started selling already. But, dang it, they’re sticking together. And now they’re even adding Andrew Cashner.
The terms: two years, and $16 million guaranteed. There’s a third-year option, and incentives, and some of the money is deferred. We know that, if Cashner passes his Orioles physical, he’s going to start, because before now, the Orioles’ rotation depth chart read as such:
You can plug Cashner in, then. Holes still remain. The Orioles don’t look that good, in particular in a division that already has the Red Sox and Yankees. But if you’re not going to sell, you might as well do something else. Call it optimism or call it stubbornness, but the Orioles are going to give this a try.
The Orioles do not project to be strong. There’s little they can do between now and opening day to change that. The two best teams in the division look incredibly formidable. The Rays still look okay, and so do the Blue Jays, who, as I write this, have added Jaime Garcia. The Orioles might be fifth out of five. They probably are fifth out of five. But you can understand them, in a way, given some of the recent history. The 2012 Orioles were recent history’s greatest overachiever, winning 93 games after being projected to win only 70. The 2014 Orioles beat their projection by 15 wins. The 2016 Orioles beat their projection by 12 wins. You can get why they’d want to give it a go, especially as long as Manny Machado is still around. If longer-term ugliness is almost unavoidable, why start the losing early?
The other perspective: You should start the losing early, if it helps to bring in talent. The Orioles could’ve gotten younger by now. Maybe that’ll become their midseason direction. Cashner, too, could become a part of that, a part of a sell-off. But I shouldn’t keep talking about where the Orioles are. I should talk about their new starter.
Cashner is 31, and very tall, and he still throws his fastball in the mid-90s when he wants to. The power in his arm has hardly waned, and, of the 125 starting pitchers last season who threw at least 100 innings, Cashner ranked 21st in ERA-. That’s in between Carlos Carrasco and Justin Verlander. A lot of us still can’t help but look at ERA first, and Cashner’s was dazzling.
Now for the analytical part that could’ve been written in 2008. I feel like, as a group, we’re long past just believing in ERA. But still — but still — a low ERA can mislead. Andrew Cashner’s ERA was not at all supported by his peripherals. This is like sabermetrics 101, but, anyway, here are all the starting pitchers from the past two seasons who, in each year, threw at least 100 innings. You see 2016 and 2017 strikeout rates, and Cashner is in yellow.
Cashner’s strikeout rate dropped by the most. The most! He made 28 starts, and was for the most part healthy, but his strikeouts just plain cratered. His walk rate barely budged. Where Cashner finished with an ERA- of 74, he also finished with an FIP- of 103, and an xFIP- of 121. The season before, and the season before that, Cashner’s ERA was worse than his peripherals.
You can try to analyze this as much as you want. You can try to give Cashner as much credit as you want. He pitched a lot better with runners on base. Maybe he was pitching to weak contact. Maybe he knew exactly when to try to get a grounder. But Cashner wound up with the third-highest contact rate. He was hittable, without pounding the zone. And, let’s focus on that 47-point gap between Cashner’s ERA- and his xFIP-. That’s one of the very largest single-season gaps on record. How has that held up over time? Here’s another scatter plot, with data going back 16 seasons.
You observe a very weak relationship. There are 33 starters who, in Year X, had an ERA- at least 30 points lower than their xFIP-. Their average ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- marks: 71/97/107. The following season, for the same pitchers, those average marks were 103/106/107. Almost full regression, in the direction of the xFIP-. More batted balls started to find the ground. More batted balls started to clear the fence. This is so fundamental it’s almost boring, and it’s so old-school saber that we all want to try to think our way out of it, but the fundamentals are the fundamentals for a reason. I don’t think Statcast can save Andrew Cashner’s 2017 ERA. I don’t know if he got lucky, per se, but he almost certainly can’t do that again. Hitters are too good, and you want for a pitcher to generate more strikeouts, or yield fewer walks. Cashner successfully walked the tightrope once. Could he walk it all the way back?
It’s important to point out, now, that it’s not like Cashner is being compensated as if that low 2017 ERA were legitimate. He lasted this long for a reason, and the Rangers didn’t even extend a qualifying offer. The market knows that ERA was a mirage. The reason this matters is because it makes a difference as to how good the Orioles look as a consequence. Cashner will bring some kind of stability. The Orioles wouldn’t want to fill three rotation spots from their pool of internal options. Cashner will go once every five games. But he doesn’t actually profile to be that good. Steamer projects an ERA over 5. If I were going to be optimistic, I wouldn’t point to the low 2017 ERA at all. I’d point to the fact that Cashner still has most of his old velocity, the velocity he had when he got more strikeouts. I think, because of his stuff, Cashner could bounce back some, and hold up his end of the bargain. Cashner might perform like a real No. 3. More realistically, it’s within his reach to look like a No. 4. For Baltimore, it’s something.
And if Cashner looks good enough, maybe, by the end of July, he’s doing his job elsewhere. That’s all up to how the Orioles perform. They seemingly aren’t going to sell until they absolutely have to. This could be the season they have to. Or this could be one more season of Orioles magic. With this roster, in this divisional context, such overachieving might be the most magical yet.
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.