There Have Been Two Trevor Cahills

A couple days ago, the Angels signed Matt Harvey for a year and $11 million, with a small potential purse of incentives. And now today, the Angels have signed Trevor Cahill for a year and $9 million, with a smaller potential purse of incentives. Cahill is just a year older than Harvey is, and he’s coming off a superior season. But where Harvey threw 155 innings, Cahill threw just 110. And so Harvey’s contract is a little bit better.

As many of you already know, the main issue with Cahill is durability. Over the course of his career, he’s been on the disabled list eight separate times, and he hasn’t thrown 150 major-league innings since 2012. He hasn’t thrown 150 overall innings since 2013. The last two seasons alone, Cahill has dealt with (1) a strained lower back, (2) a strained right shoulder, (3) a right shoulder impingement, (4) a right elbow impingement, (5) a strained right Achilles, and (6) upper back discomfort. Cahill has hardly been the picture of health. It’s why he didn’t receive a multi-year commitment.

And yet, Cahill is only 30. He hasn’t experienced any velocity loss, and he actually throws harder now than he did when he was younger. And it might surprise you to learn that, for all of Cahill’s health issues, he’s never had surgery. Not that I could find a record of, anyway. He’s never had surgery on his shoulder. He’s never had surgery on his elbow. He’s never had surgery on his knee or his hip or his anything else. In this way, Cahill is different from Harvey. And the upside here is easy to spot.

Over the past two years, I’ve written about Cahill on multiple occasions. I wrote about him as a Padre, I wrote about him as a new Royal, and I wrote about him as an Athletic. Most recently he was an important part of Oakland’s patchwork starting rotation, that, against all odds, helped push the A’s ever so briefly into the playoffs. In the end, Cahill wound up with about the same park-adjusted FIP as Charlie Morton. He allowed about the same contact rate as James Paxton and Noah Syndergaard. Cahill was mostly good when he could pitch. He made it hard to get the bat on the ball, and then he made it hard to lift the ball off the ground.

What I’ve been struck by is how different Cahill can look. Now, every pitcher mixes good starts and bad ones. Every pitcher would look better if you take the bad starts out. Clayton Kershaw has a career 1.19 ERA in wins, and a career 5.26 ERA in losses. You can’t just erase all the losses. But look at this Cahill table, for 2017 – 2018. For each season, I designated a turning point.

Trevor Cahill’s Last Two Seasons
Year Split IP ERA- FIP- xFIP- K-BB% GB% Contact%
2017 Through 7/16 57.1 75 76 72 21% 57% 70%
2017 After 7/16 26.2 200 224 147 -6% 54% 82%
2018 Through 8/18 86.2 75 75 78 18% 53% 71%
2018 After 8/18 23.1 148 125 134 -1% 53% 82%

Earlier in 2017, Cahill was excellent. Earlier in 2018, Cahill was almost identically excellent. Both seasons, though, took a turn for the worse. In 2017, Cahill went off the rails in July; this past year, the turn happened in August. Shortly after the turn in 2017, Cahill hit the DL with a shoulder impingement. Shortly after the turn in 2018, Cahill needed treatment for his back, and he would’ve gone on the DL had it not been September. What’s clear is that, when Cahill has been at or around 100%, he’s been a very effective starting pitcher. When there’s been discomfort, though, Cahill’s missed his spots by too much. He already works around the edges of the zone. He doesn’t have that great a margin of error.

From the Angels’ perspective, you can’t sign Trevor Cahill and just expect him to be able to pitch down the stretch, or in the playoffs. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s nothing to count on. So this is more of an immediate upside play, something that might help the Angels’ rotation through the first handful of months. The Angels have enough potential starters now that they could back off of Cahill if they had to, and JC Ramirez is in line to become available again in the second half. Cahill improves the Angels’ projection, and he kind of buys them time. Maybe they’ll end up needing help again if Cahill gets hurt during the year, but that’s the future Angels’ problem. For now, they can breathe a little easier. Cahill might mean an extra win or two or three, for an Angels team trying for the wild card.

On the mound, Cahill has learned to pitch backward over time. This past year he threw just 41% fastballs, ranking him 115th out of 128 starters with at least 100 innings. Cahill’s not exactly hurting for velocity — his sinker hangs in the low 90s — but this is a credit to the strength of the rest of his pitches. He’s re-introduced a high-80s cutter, but Cahill’s greatest success comes from his curveball and changeup. Last year, Cahill’s curveball ranked in the 97th percentile in spin rate. Meanwhile, his changeup ranked in the 90th percentile among starters in whiff rate. It’s a changeup that allows Cahill to avoid a platoon split, and it’s also a changeup that Cahill is comfortable throwing to righties, as well as to lefties. This is what the changeup can look like:

Even at his best, Cahill spends so much time below the zone that he’ll get himself into walk trouble. But he misses bats and gets ground balls, and where last year he got to pitch in front of Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, this next year he should get to pitch in front of Andrelton Simmons, Zack Cozart, and David Fletcher. Cozart is coming off injury and Fletcher is mostly an unknown, but both of them profile as excellent defenders, so Cahill’s an appropriate fit for the team. The rotation needed the help, and the infield is just begging for action.

For the Angels, Cahill is a risk, for obvious reasons. Matt Harvey is a risk, for obvious reasons. The Angels have gone into seasons with high-risk rotations before, and last year it didn’t work out. It’s easy to understand how these plans could go awry, but then, at least the depth is now improved, and there’s nothing too terribly wrong with a couple of one-year contracts. Cahill probably isn’t going to make 30 starts. Cahill probably isn’t going to make 25 starts. Maybe, though, he can make 15 or 20 good ones. And maybe that’ll help push the Angels just barely over the top. They have too much skill to not try to contend, and Cahill makes for a smart gamble on upside.

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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3 years ago

Why should there be only one? Is he the Highlander?

3 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Maybe there is just one, but Jeff’s seeing double.

3 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

That’s gonna get really awkward if/when the bizarro RP version of Ryan Braun, but bizarro [C?] version of Trevor Cahill inevitably becomes a thing over a sufficiently long expanse of time.