Tony Cingrani Needs a New Pitch, Is Working on It

We know early spring-training coverage, February coverage, is littered with Best Shape of His Life stories. While there’s no database to track the impact and predictive power of these stories, the general sense is they generally do not correlate with dramatically better performance in the following season.

In a FanGraphs chat a couple weeks ago, one questioner asked me to what types of stories I pay attention early in the spring. What really matters this time of year? It’s a good question. One story line that does interest me in February — something that can perhaps provide real value and change — is the addition of a new pitch.

Jason Collette was kind enough this week to track every reported pitch addition to date in 2017. Perhaps the new pitch about which we should be most excited isn’t really a pitcher adding a new pitch at all, but bringing back an old one. Eno Sarris is excited about the return of Dylan Bundy’s cutter, a pitch once described as “a supreme piece of aerodynamic filth” by former-BP-writer-turned-Cubs-scout Jason Parks. Imagine Andrew Miller with another weapon or Joe Ross with a much-needed changeup.

But perhaps no one needs a new pitch more than one lefty experimenting with one this spring: Reds reliever Tony Cingrani. (And no group in baseball needs more help than what was a historically poor bullpen in Cincinnati last season.)

Cingrani told the cutter he began developing this offseason is “just another way to get guys out… [The cutter] feels comfortable.”

But Cingrani really has had only one way, to date, to get major-league hitters out. Among all pitchers who tossed at least 40 innings last season, Cingrani led baseball in fastball usage, throwing his four-seam fastball 89.5% of the time.

It was the fifth-highest fastball usage in a season during the PITCHf/x era, with only Grant Balfour (91.8% in 2008), Matt Thornton (89.9% in 2011), Jonathan Papelbon (89.7% in 2008) and Sean Doolittle (89.6% in 2013) bettering Cingrani’s fastball usage rate.

Among pitchers who’ve recorded at least 100 innings total pitched since 2008, Cingrani’s career 82.5% fastball usage ranks second only to Doolittle (87%). Here’s the complete least of pitchers who have leaned on their fastball 75% of the time or more frequently since 2008:

One-Trick Pitchers
Pitcher FA% wFB
Sean Doolittle 87.0 46.0
Tony Cingrani 82.5 14.1
Trevor Rosenthal 80.8 16.1
Dennis Sarfate 79.8 5.1
Aroldis Chapman 78.1 74.5
Daniel Cabrera 78.1 -23.2
Jesus Colome 77.2 -4.0
Hong-Chih Kuo 77.0 42.8
Nick Hagadone 76.6 -9.4
David Aardsma 76.4 12.4
Scot Shields 75.5 -0.4
Top fastball usage among pitchers who have logged at least 100 innings since 2008
wFB denotes runs above or below average for the fastball.

You’ll notice that some of those pitchers have a great fastball, like Chapman. If a pitcher, especially a reliever, has a dominant offering, he should lean on it. As for Daniel Cabrera? Who knows. But Cingrani’s fastball hasn’t been a consistently great pitch. In 2014 and 2015, it produced negative run values. It doesn’t help that every major-league hitter sits on the pitch.

For his career, he owns a middling 100 ERA-, a 111 FIP- and a 4.41 FIP. It’s not the profile of a late-inning, high-leverage arm, but it’s still a player who was tendered a contract and agreed to avoid arbitration with a one-year, $1.8 million deal for 2017. The Reds are willing to pay Cingrani more than the league minimum likely in part because they are curious if there is more there.

Cingrani still throws left-handed. And his fastball averaged a career-high 94 mph last season, a significant jump from his previous levels of 91.8 mph (2012), 91.8 mph (2013), 91.2 mph (2014) and 91.8 mph (2015).

Cingrani has the kind of velocity that could help a secondary offering become a swing-and-miss offering, if he had a second offering. He’s just never been able to find a secondary offering he trusts and is effective. The most common pitch he has tried has been the slider, but it’s been a below-average pitch.

So this winter, he went in search of an answer, to a place that’s become an increasingly popular pick for pitchers: Driveline Baseball. Said Cingrani to

At the suggestion of teammate and fellow reliever Caleb Cotham, Cingrani traveled to Kent, Wash., in the fall and worked out at Driveline Baseball. The facility, owned by Kyle Boddy, has gained a reputation for providing data-driven pitch training and also encourages building arm strength by playing catch with weighted balls.

“Caleb is a pretty smart cat,” Cingrani said. “The weighted-ball stuff, you can fine-tune that to whatever you want to make it. Having that TrackMan stuff up there and dealing with Kyle, he’s seen so many guys throw and how the ball moves. He can adjust grips and is just really good.”

Boddy taught Cingrani the cutter grip and how to throw it.

Reds manager Bryan Price said a cutter or hard slider “will open up a whole new world to Tony.” That’s undoubtedly true. Will it happen? We’ll have to wait and see. A lot of times pitchers never have the confidence to bring pitches on which they’ve worked in spring into the season. See: Gerrit Cole and his changeup. But it’s a story and pitch worth following this spring. It’s an early-spring story that could mean something.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

How is Jake McGee not on any of these lists?