Which Trevor Cahill Did the Braves Get?

The Braves have acquired Trevor Cahill and cash for their Josh Elander, a 24-year-old former catcher that was playing outfield in High-A Lynchburg for the second time last year. So mostly this transaction is about the Braves getting a cheap starter on the cheap. The quality of that incoming pitcher, and the fit on a rebuilding team — these are the things that are most debatable about the deal.

Like with Nick Markakis before him, the acquisition of Cahill may seem strange for a team that traded away two of its three best hitters for prospects and young pitchers in the offseason. Even with Markakis, the Braves are projected for the league’s worst offense, and Cahill won’t help there either. Even if he’ll help on the other side of the ledger — ZiPs projects Cahill to be worth about a win above replacement — it won’t be enough. Maybe you can make a case that anything can happen in a year, but the Wild Card possibilities for a team projected for 74 wins (maybe 75) aren’t something you bet $6 million on.

Could this be about year two? Like Markakis, Cahill could be kept in the fold in 2016. He has a $13 million option, and maybe by then things will be building again instead of tearing down. Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller, and Alex Wood will all still be reasonably-priced and decent. The system will be graduating third baseman Rio Ruiz, second baseman Jose Peraza, catcher Christian Bethancourt, and a host of pitchers sometime over the next two years. If Cahill can be glue, maybe the 2016 Braves will be projected close enough to .500 to start thinking about improving around the edges in case a wild card run happens.

Could Cahill be worth that $13 million? Will the pitcher who lost his rotation spot last year be worth one this year?

That might be the harder question to answer, considering the fact that if a team thinks that Nick Markakis and Trevor Cahill are values at their prices, they should probably go get them, even if the team isn’t considered a contender from the outside. And Cahill has changed enough over the years to make this question a tough one to answer.

From 2010 to 2013, we knew who Trevor Cahill was. Dude was about ground balls. He had a top-five grounder rate (57.3%), but was underwhelming when it came to strikeouts (17.6%) or whiffs (7.6%) or velocity (89.5 mph average fastball velocity). He was also about a league-average pitcher most of those years.

Last year, Cahill struck out 21% of the batters he faced and induced only 48.5% of his contact on the ground. Those were career extremes — high for the strikeouts and low for the ground balls — which is weird enough without looking at the whiff rates for his respective pitches, which look like a fork in an outlet. Then Cahill went out and changed his arm slot this spring.

The changes in his pitching mix might not be such a big deal. It looks like he stopped throwing his slider or cutter in favor of his curveball, which is fine. That change should have been a positive one. For his career, Cahill has gotten more whiffs (13.8% to 12.1%) and grounders (62% to 47.1%) from the curve, after all.

He’s still got the excellent change and sinker, and a breaking ball, which seems like it should be enough. For some reason, though, his sinker and change got fewer grounders last year than they ever had. This, despite him throwing it lower in the zone, on average. Check out where he threw the sinker to righties from 2011-2013 on the left, and where he threw them in 2014 on the right:


So it’s not location. The sinker did have an inch less sink on it last year than it ever had before, which is strange. It could be the reason he switched his mechanics this spring. He doesn’t quite come out and say it that way, but he does give some of the reasoning and demo his new mechanics here:

Thanks to Jeff Wiser, we have spring video of the new delivery.

Here’s what it used to look like.

We may need more regular season data and video to know what exactly will happen to his pitches from the new slot.

What we do know is that his new arm slot will mean new movement. It already has. Consistent with arm slot theory, the more over the top he goes, the more likely it is that he gets that sink back that’s been missing. He even mentioned it as part of the reason he made the change to Nick Piecoro.

So he might get his sink back, but how important is that for Cahill? In a quick, limited study, I checked the relationship between horizontal and vertical movement on the sinker and ground-ball rate, and vertical movement is indeed more important (-.59 r, p less than .0001 for vertical movement, minimum 100 balls in play, -.13 r, p=.15 for horizontal movement). Velocity may be more important that either movement, but this arm slot could help his spring velocity, too — he’s been up almost two ticks on the fastball this spring.

The movement numbers have not been as exciting, however, as the sink has not come yet. And a recent post by physicist Alan Nathan suggests that spin that goes along with the ball’s flight is useless spin — and going to a more over the top delivery may lose some of that perpendicular spin that is so useful. Cahill’s change is risky.

If Trevor Cahill has indeed found his sink, and more gas out of a new slot, it’s not impossible that he refinds his form. That’s worth the risk. If he pushes the ground-ball rate back to 60% and combines it with a big dropping curve and a good change, he could even combine different aspects of his past arsenal for better outcomes. It’s not impossible that he’s worth $13 million again next year after a return to form.

And that makes him a decent gamble, even at $6 million this year, for a team that’s rebuilding. After all, it’s just one year, and the alternatives were unexciting.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

I know this article isn’t about the Braves per se, but a couple points:

— The Braves were top 5 pitching team and a bottom 5 hitting team last season, and still finished 79-83. The main problem for their offensive struggles was league worst contact and SwStr rates, a problem they addressed with Top 5 contact guy Markakis and dumped high SwStr guys Uggla and Gattis. The offense will be better this season.

— Before this deal, the Braves had an active payroll in the bottom third of the league. Re-building or not, a team in the top quartile in Revenue and Operating Income is expected by their fan base to break $100M in payroll to at least try to be competitive. Trotting out Wandy Rodriguez doesn’t sell tickets…

Finally, I’ll take the over on Braves at 76 wins. The Giants have built a dynasty on elite pitching and serviceable offense, why can’t the Braves use that model to get to .500?

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

they lost Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. the offense will be worse.

9 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Um, the Braves were the second to last in the league in Runs last season….it would be difficult for them to be any worse….

Dan Ugglas Forearm
9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

Just because they can (almost) only go up in team scoring rankings doesn’t mean they can only go up in actual runs scored.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

Just so we’re talking facts here…only 5 times in the last 10 years has a team scored fewer runs than the 2014 Braves.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

There is no way that a team loses Heyward, Upton, and Gattis and replaces them Markakis, Jonny Gomes, and Christian Bethancourt does not have a lower wOBA or wRC+ this year. Last year the offense this terrible. This year the offense will still be terrible, but with fewer strikeouts. Strikeout % has only a weak negative correlation with scoring runs. It’s not crazy to hope for a bounceback year from Simmons and a few other guys (Chris Johnson and Melvin Upton — okay, hoping for Melvin to improve might be crazy) as well as breakouts from new guys like Peterson and Bethancourt, but it’s pretty darn unlikely (although I think Simmons, at least, will be closer to league average on offense this year). I don’t know if any of the Braves troubles last year on offense were do some bad clustering luck. If so, one might hope for some improvement there. But short of some really unexpected performances or some crazy good luck, I don’t see how this team is better offensively than it was 2014.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

But they just lost 3 of their best hitters. And, while I won’t deny the possibility that they will score more runs as they were very unlucky last year, I don’t believe it will have anything to do with dumping high SwStr guys and replacing them with decidely worse high contact guys. Baltimore scored a ton of runs last year with a lineup replete with high SwStr guys.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

“The offense will be better this season.”

You’ve got to be kidding.

Also, love the implication that the guy with a 125 wRC+ in 401 PA was part of the offensive problem last year.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

1. As Kevin said, you left out the other parts of the offense that you lost. Plus Uggla only had 150 PA’s. Losing Gattis, Heyward, and Upton will set them back.

2. The Nats are the counterexample to the Giants. They also have gone for elite pitching and serviceable offense and have 2 early post-season exits in the last 3 years.

3. You think Trevor Cahill is that much sexier than Wandy Rodriguez? Please

9 years ago
Reply to  Rainmaker

Off to a good start