There are at least two things you can do when a pitcher’s first start of the season doesn’t go as planned:
1. You can chalk it up to Small Sample Size Theater, and promptly ignore it. This is probably the prudent thing to do.
2. You can search for various storylines that may or may not have any significance going forward. This is probably not advisable.
I chose No. 2.
First storyline: How will Andrew Cashner handle life without Rene Rivera?
In 2014, no Padres’ pitcher seemed to benefit more from the presence of Rivera than Cashner, as the duo often paired to frustrate batters by working the edges of the strike zone and turning would-be balls into strikes. (Like in this game against the Tigers, for example.) Rivera would set up just off the plate, put down his glove, and Cashner would deliver a two-seam fastball right to his catcher’s glove. Rinse, repeat. The batter would either stare in disbelief at a pitch that was neither hittable nor in the strike zone, or they’d halfheartedly attempt to punch at it and ground out weakly somewhere.
There’s still some question about new catcher Derek Norris‘ framing ability. Both Baseball Prospectus and Stat Corner have Norris’ pitch framing rated right around average, maybe a tick above. Noted sabermetrician Chris Long, however, says he’s a very good pitch framer. Either way, he almost certainly isn’t in the league of Rene Rivera (or Yasmani Grandal), who rates as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball. For his (limited) career, Rivera’s framing expertise has been worth 35.9 runs.
So, the question: will Cashner remain as effective without Rivera? We can’t answer that question after one start, but we can guess that switching from Rivera to Norris won’t have a huge effect on Cashner’s game. Then again, it might. And there were some noticeable pitches Cashner didn’t get last night — a couple of them important — that very well could have been called strikes with Rivera behind the plate. Here’s one in the first inning on an 0-2 pitch to Adrian Gonzalez that appeared to catch the top of the zone:
Gonzalez hit the next pitch out for a home run.
Second storyline: What happened to Cashner’s two-seam fastball?
At one point during the middle of Cashner’s start, I (thought I) realized that he was rarely throwing his two-seam fastball (sinker), a pitch he threw 47 percent of the time last season according to Brooks Baseball. I was wrong. He actually threw his two-seamer quite frequently tonight — 41 percent of the time. However, it went faster and moved less than last year’s version:
|Pitch||Speed||Horizontal Break||Vertical Break|
Cashner’s two-seamer tonight was over 1 mile-per-hour faster than his two-seamer from last year, and it had almost an inch less horizontal break*. What appeared to be happening on TV — Cashner throwing harder while his pitches were flattening out — is largely backed up by the PITCHf/x data.
*It’s important to remember that it’s just one start, and that maybe the calibration or classification of the PITCHf/x data was off slightly last night. It might not be likely at this point, but it’s possible. Either way, it’s just one start.
Third storyline: Missing spots.
There are a bunch of pitches you could grab here to show that Cashner was consistently missing his spots against the Dodgers; three will suffice (excuse my extremely crude photo-editing):
Home run No. 1:
Home run No. 2:
Home run No. 3:
The first two Adrian Gonzalez home runs weren’t huge misses by Cashner, but they were both slightly higher and slightly more out over the plate than Norris wanted them. That’s not going to work against a locked-in Gonzalez. The third offering was worse — Cashner’s 93-mile-an-hour fastball, which was supposed to be located on the outside corner, ended up right down Broadway.
These things will happen, and most of the time mistakes aren’t turned into home runs at the same rate Gonzalez turned the trick tonight. But when you combine Cashner’s propensity to miss spots with his adjustment to a smaller (Rivera-less) strike zone with his slightly different two-seam fastball (things that could be related), you have a curious start. There’s probably nothing to see here long-term, but it certainly gives us some things to keep an eye on as the season progresses.