Is Tony Cingrani a Sustainable Pitcher?

No matter where Tony Cingrani is playing, he is pitching at an elite level. He has quickly jumped through the Reds’ system, and made his 2013 MLB stint his longest held position yet as he cracked the 100-inning mark. For his MLB career, he has a 2.87 ERA, a 3.42 xFIP, and 1.4 WAR in 109.2 innings pitched. At just 24 years old, he looks to be one of the game’s best young lefties. Is this the case?

One major concern regarding Cingrani’s development is his reliance on the fastball. In 2013, he threw his fastball 81% of the time; the second highest rate of all hurlers with at least 100 innings pitched. Bartolo Colon tops the list at 85.5% usage, and no other pitchers cracked 75%. Unfortunately, pitch type data only dates back to 2002, which happens to be right after Colon transformed his game from strikeout-machine to control-master. That could have made for an interesting comparison.

With Cingrani relying so much on his fastball, it has to be a pretty good offering, right? Opposing hitters slashed a line of .208/.296/.388 against it last year, good for a 95 wRC+. The most surprising number I found was that his fastball generated a SwStr% of 10.5%. It also yielded infield fly balls 27.6% of the time. Yeah, it’s a pretty good pitch.

So can Cingrani continue to rely on his fastball at such an extreme rate going forward, or will hitters adapt and catch up? To try and find an answer, I’ll look for comparable pitchers. Going back to 2002, I used the same search parameters of at least 100 innings pitched and sorted by Fastball%. The list is topped by the 2012 and 2013 seasons of Colon. Not surprisingly, the list is filled with control-type pitchers with mediocre strikeout rates, such as Colon, Aaron Cook, Roberto Hernandez, etc. Even those with higher strikeout rates, such as Justin Masterson and Daniel Cabrera don’t come close to the strikeout rates of Cingrani, or the swings-and-misses via Cingrani’s fastball.

This results in two conclusions: 1) Cingrani is a unique pitcher that has no relatively close comparisons from the last 12 years, and/or 2) He is going to have to make some major changes to his pitch usage rates.

This leads to an obvious question. Does Cingrani have any other legitimate offerings besides the fastball? JD Sussman of Fangraphs wrote an analysis of Cingrani last April. He determined that his changeup and slider were both average at best, and he is also trying to develop a curveball. Last year, according to Pitch F/X, he threw the change 7.6% of the time. It was crushed to a 161 wRC+, and generated a SwStr% of just 3.6% and other negligible benefits. The slider on the other hand, which he used at a 7.4% rate, was much better. Opponents simply couldn’t hit it, resulting in a -60 wRC+, and a 14.8% SwStr%. In such a small sample size, this is likely a result of his foes just not expecting anything other than the fastball from Cingrani. That said, it shows more promise than the changeup.

Much is said about Cingrani’s deceptive delivery, which leads to hitters not being able to hit the pitch they know is coming. Opponents couldn’t adapt last year, as his ERA was nearly a run improved in the second half. His peripherals also remained intact throughout the year. His deceptiveness can only last so long though, I’d imagine.

2014 will tell a lot about Cingrani’s future. Seeing as how he is unique in his reliance on one pitch, coupled with such immediate success, it remains to be seen if his production is sustainable. I worry that if hitters do catch up to his fastball, it will end in disaster. He generates grounders just 34.3% of the time, and will be calling Cincinnati’s sand box of a park his home.

Based on the lack of comparable successful pitchers, his mediocre offerings beyond the fastball (and maybe his slider), and little major league exposure, I would be hesitant to bank of Cingrani going forward. I do not think he can continue to be successful with his current mix of pitches. If he can develop his slider and one of his changeup or curveball a bit more, he should be able to stick in the rotation. If not, he would make for one heck of a reliever. In any case, he will be a key to the Reds 2014 season.

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