The Hangover: Trevor Cahill Leaderboard Watch

I didn’t catch Trevor Cahill‘s start on Saturday night because I was in Boston watching another ace named Chris Sale. I came away from that experience convinced that the key to solving baseball’s pace-of-play problem is to clone about 50 or so Sales, although that would immediately prompt a new run-scoring problem (and, perhaps, cross some ethical boundaries). Back to the subject at hand . . .

Cahill didn’t have his best start against the White Sox, but he still managed seven strikeouts and a lone walk on the road in a hitter-friendly ballpark in the league with the DH. When even your bad starts look pretty darned good, you know you’re getting somewhere. We’re a month and a half into the season—or 41 1/3 innings in Cahill Time—so I figured it’d be a good time to check in on where Cahill stands in the majors in a variety of pitching categories (among starting pitchers). Let’s get right to it.

DRA

13. Lance McCullers, 2.02
14. Trevor Cahill, 2.07
15. Madison Bumgarner, 2.11

Brief stat description: Deserved Run Average, from Baseball Prospectus, is probably the best catch-all pitching stat going these days, a tremendously ambitious attempt to isolate pitcher performance as best as humanely possible.

Distance to leader: 1.01. Whoops, here’s that Sale guy again. He currently has a 1.06 DRA, which is 50 points better than Craig Kimbrel‘s best full season. I know it’s not fair to put anyone on Clayton Kershaw‘s level, but Sale is pushing the envelope. He is, quite simply, shredding it in a Red Sox uniform.

As for Cahill, this number, by itself, goes a long way toward validating just how good he’s been so far this year. You don’t put up the 14th-best DRA in the majors with smoke and mirrors.

cFIP

5. Michael Pineda, 76
6. Trevor Cahill, 78
7. Chris Archer, 79

Brief stat explanation: DRA’s sister stat, cFIP is a beefed-up version of good ol’ FIP. By definition, 100 is average and Cahill’s early figure is well within the “great” range.

Distance to leader: 19 points. Sale leads the world in all pitching stats, apparently, and his 59 cFIP is 10 points better than his closest competitors, the injured Noah Syndergaard and James Paxton.

FIP

7. Stephen Strasburg, 2.80
8. Trevor Cahill, 2.85
9. Ivan Nova, 2.85

Brief stat explanation: FIP uses only strikeouts, walks, and home runs to measure a pitcher’s performance, taking defense and batted-ball luck out of the equation. It isn’t as comprehensive as cFIP, but it’s still more frequently cited for a variety of reasons. Like cFIP, it’s a good predictive indicator.

Distance to leader: 1.37. Paxton, who hasn’t allowed a single home run in nearly 40 innings, leads the league with a gaudy 1.40 FIP. We won’t make an entire new category for it, but xFIP, which adjusts for a normal HR/FB rate, drops Paxton’s number all the way down to 3.03. Cahill’s is at 2.99, which is 12th in the league and one slot better than Paxton.

Strikeout Percentage

9. Eduardo Rodriguez 29.6
10. Trevor Cahill, 29.5
11. Luis Severino, 29.2

Brief stat explanation: This one’s easy. It’s just the percentage of batters a pitcher strikes out.

Distance to leader: 9.3 percentage points. Sale, who’s doing his damnedest to hijack this article, is striking out 38.8 percent of the hitters he’s faced, as a friggin’ starting pitcher.

Cahill is hovering around the 10 spot in all of these statistics so far, which is impressive in its own right. The small sample alert always applies, and it’s unlikely that Cahill keeps his performance up all year to this degree. But the thing is, he’s just flat out pitching really well. There’s no luck involved, or at least not enough to significantly sway the numbers. This isn’t some BABiP-led resurgence that’s bound to fall apart by summer time. (Cahill’sBABiP is .300, for what it’s worth, right around league average.) He isn’t stranding a ton of base runners or relying on crazy-good defense.

The man is just pitching well.

Groundball rate

5. Lance McCullers, 60.3
6. Trevor Cahill, 60.2
7. Marcus Stroman, 58.7

Brief stat explanation: The percentage of batted balls hit on the ground.

Distance to leader: 5.7 percent. The Rockies Kyle Freeland has a 2.93 ERA despite a 5.85 K/9 in 40 innings . . . with 23 2/3 of them coming at Coors and another six in Arizona. It’s too early to say that Freeland has found the Coors antidote, but it’s a good start.

On Cahill, whoa. The only other pitchers with a strikeout and groundball rate near Cahill are Alex Wood and McCullers. In other words, you’re not supposed to be able to get a ton of strikeouts and a ton of ground balls. For the most part, strikeout pitchers tend to work up in the zone, a strategy that results in more fly balls (and sometimes more home runs). Groundball pitchers tend to work down in the zone with sinkers, a strategy that results in more worm-burners but fewer strikeouts. Cahill is somehow succeeding in both areas.

K%-BB%

16. Rick Porcello, 19.8
17. Trevor Cahill, 19.7
18. Robbie Ray, 19.3

Brief stat explanation: A marginal upgrade from strikeout-to-walk ratio, this is simply strikeout percentage minus walk percentage.

Distance to leader: 13.2 percentage points. Mr. Sale, this is a Padres blog.

Anyway, Cahill drops a bit here because his walk rate stands at  a mortal 9.8 percent. I hesitate to say that Cahill needs to walk fewer batters because he really doesn’t. Plus, what’s working is working; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it; just leave well enough alone; etc. But, just to get greedy, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if he lowered it a tick. With the way batters are swinging and missing at his pitches, it’s probably better to challenge them than to nibble at this point, even when down in the count. Speaking of whiffs . . .

Slider Whiffs Per Swing Percentage

5. Blake Snell, 50.0
6. Trevor Cahill, 50.0
7. Dallas Keuchel, 48.10

Brief stat explanation: This is the amount of whiffs a pitcher gets on each slider swung at. Cahill, for instance, has gotten swings on 36 of his 67 sliders, and he’s gotten swings and misses on 18 of those 36 swings.

Distance to leader: 10.61 percentage points. A’s lefty Sean Manaea has a ridiculous 61.10 percent slider whiffs/swing rate, just ahead of Max Scherzer.

Cahill induces any kind of swing on 53.7 percent of his sliders, which is 24th in the league. Of the 23 guys ahead of him, only Scherzer and Robbie Ray get more whiffs per hack.

Curveball Whiffs Per Swing Percentage

3. Jon Lester, 52.0
4. Trevor Cahill, 50.72
5. Carlos Carrasco, 50.0

Brief stat explanation: Same thing, just with curveballs.

Distance to leader: 15.95 percentage points. Mike Pelfrey (yes, Mike Pelfrey) (yes, that Mike Pelfrey) leads the league in this stat, although there is a catch. He’s throw just 53 curves and gotten swings on just nine of them, so it’s very much a small sample thing (although still interesting). After that there’s fellow Padre Luis Perdomo at 53.73 percent (*file for future Hangover*), then Lester and Cahill.

Eliminate Pelfrey, and Cahill’s essentially getting whiffs on his curve better than anyone outside San Diego. For as much as all of these stats are impressive, it’s perhaps most interesting that Cahill rates so well when you get really granular. It’s another sign, I think, that there’s a good shot this isn’t any type of mirage. It’s not like Cahill is working the edges of the plate and somehow inducing weak contact, or getting a bunch of strikeouts looking by fooling guys. Even when they do make contact, hitters are putting the ball on the ground. And, as we noted a few weeks back, Cahill has taken full advantage of his excellent breaking pitches by throwing them more often.

He’s just good, and it’s arguably the most exciting early-season development of the Padres season, a category which isn’t as barren as you might expect (Austin Hedges, Manuel Margot, Brad Hand, a little Ryan Schimpf and Perdomo, etc.). Enjoy it while it lasts; the most likely thing to stop Cahill’s success with the Padres at this point is a trade.

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  • chili

    Great article. Very interesting, thorough breakdown. Much appreciated.

    • Thanks. Appreciate that, chili.