The Hangover: Trevor Cahill, Developing Trade Chip

When Trevor Cahill broke into the big leagues back in 2009 with Oakland, he had one major problem. He couldn’t strike anybody out. Cahill struck out just 90 batters in 178 2/3 innings that year, and his inability to induce whiffs followed him through most of his career, from Oakland to Arizona to Atlanta. By the time he was 25, Cahill had pigeonholed himself into a backend starter role, good for sometimes ordinary outings but not much more.

Then last year with the Cubs, as a reliever, a flicker of hope; Cahill finally unlocked the door to the strikeout. He fanned a batter an inning while posting otherwise unspectacular numbers. It was enough, at least, to add some intrigue to what had become a stale act.

The Padres bit, signing Cahill to a cheap one-year deal this offseason with the promise at a crack to break their starting rotation. “If you can’t make our rotation, you probably can’t make any rotation” might have been the sales pitch. Cahill bought it.

Last night, against the Rockies, we saw peak Cahill. The righty struck out seven in six innings, including Nolan Arenado twice, with no walks, three hits, and a lone unearned run. He did it with some legitimate out pitches, like this breaking ball to Arenado

and this changeup to Carlos Gonzalez

That’s the thing spurring Cahill’s late-career resurgence. Like a number of other once downtrodden pitchers (think Rich Hill or former Padres turnaround project Drew Pomeranz), he’s abandoned the fastball for a heavy dose of offspeed pitches. Via Brooks Baseball, note Cahill’s nosediving fastball rate:


For the first time in his career, Cahill is throwing more than 50 percent offspeed pitches. By comparison, in 2013, he threw some form of the fastball 75 percent of the time. Of course, throwing more breaking pitches doesn’t magically turn someone into a good pitcher. You’ve gotta actually be able to get swings and misses with them. Here’s Cahill’s Whiff Percentage, again from Brooks Baseball:


He’s coaxed a swing and miss on well over 20 percent of the offspeed stuff, in total, led by a 29 percent whiff rate on the slider. In fact, when batters do swing at Cahill’s slider, they’re missing nearly 57 percent of the time; that’s third-best in all of baseball, behind only Danny Salazar and Sean Manaea, and ahead of Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and, well, everyone else.

Contrast that with Cahill’s primary fastball, the two-seamer, a pitch that peaked at a six percent Whiff Percentage back in 2013. The fastball, itself, isn’t really a swing and miss pitch, especially not one traveling in the low-90s and designed to get ground balls. Cahill’s reinvented himself by simply throwing it less often, and he’s got enough quality offspeed offerings to make the new repertoire work.

The kicker: he’s actually getting hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone more while getting them to swing at pitches in the zone less, which qualifies as any pitcher’s dream scenario. According to FanGraphs, via PITCHf/x data, batters are swinging at 37 percent of Cahill’s outside-the-zone pitches (compared to 27 percent career) and 48.8 percent of Cahill’s inside-the-zone pitches (57.5 percent career). Oh, yeah, and he’s still getting ground balls at a 60 percent clip. Overall, Cahill’s struck out nearly 30 percent of the batters he’s faced this season while posting a shiny 2.61 FIP.

Cahill probably doesn’t have the panache of Pomeranz, and it’s unlikely he’ll return an Anderson Espinoza come July. Right now, though, he looks really good, and it’s not just because he’s surrounded by the rest of the Padres rotation. If he keeps this up, there will be plenty of teams inquiring about his services this summer.

Note: The numbers above don’t include last night’s performance. 

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  • ballybunion

    Well, if he’s not going to bring a Pomeranz return, let alone a Kimbrel one, why trade him? In fact, why not offer him another contract for next year? He just turned 29 in March, so he might have a few good years as a starter ahead of him.

    No doubt Chacin, Richard, and Weaver are gone, and Quantrill and Lauer might not be stretched out until mid-season. Plus, Erlin and Rea would be on an innings leash. That would leave Perdomo, Lockett, and Lamet as the core of the rotation, unless A.J. Preller can pick up a free agent starter who’s actually good, and that will cost years and dollars.

    Since Cahill is a local, he might be easier/cheaper to sign for, say, two years and an option. By then, Espinoza and Morejon, and maybe a couple others, will be ready.

    • DaveP

      I think you make a good point that there is not reason to trade Cahill for the sake of trading him. However, there would be value to trading him even if the return is less than Espinoza (a top 25 prospect). The Padres signed Cahill for 1 year at a meager $1.75M. If Cahill’s improvement is real, he will become an expensive free agent who would not be retained next year. Therefore, a return of a prospect (even if he falls out of top 100) would be better than just letting him walk.

      • ballybunion

        I’m operating under the crazy assumption that the one year starters will have to be replaced next year with minor leaguers, and a free agent starter or two. Depending on who’s available next off-season, at what cost, and for how long, Cahill might be a better candidate to sign for next year.

        The Padres will have an exclusive window to sign him early in the off-season, and as a Vista High graduate, he might make himself more reasonably priced than other free agent starters, just to stay where he grew up. Yes, it’s a cold, hard business, but players have their comfort zones, and starting for the Padres, who gave him the chance to return to starting, might be Cahill’s.

        Given the Padres pitching needs for next year, the option of keeping him could outweigh placing a middling prospect into a stuffed farm system that will have to shed middling prospects soon to make room for graduates of the two rookie teams in Peoria.

      • DaveP

        I think we are on the same page. It all depends on the expected contract and the type of return in the trade. I am guessing that if Cahill continues to pitch well, he could fetch at least what Nova received this offseason 3/$26M (which looks like a crazy bargain for the Pirates as he has more CG than BB in his tenure with Bucs). I think Cahill’s value in the trade market could be increased by the small contract he has (prorated part of $1.75). As far as stuffed farm system, I am a big believer in the rule of 5 which means for every 5 pitching prospects you can only expect to hit on 1. So, it is difficult for an organization to ever have too many pitching prospects. I hope this is a problem the Padres will have to work thru. If they do trade Cahill, I would expect the Padres to again go the bargain route and attempt to identify the next Cahill.

      • I’d be game to keeping Cahill around, but I think as Dave notes, there’s a large swath of interesting players between Anderson Espinoza and a player/group of player not deemed worthwhile. If he can bring back something good, something Preller and Co. like, even if it’s not an Espinoza type, I think they’ve obviously gotta explore dealing him.

  • GT500KR

    Preller’s history, short as it is, suggests a trade. He’s traded vets and paid out the wazoo to get back prospects, some of them nowhere near as attractive as Espinoza. He’s been paying 2x the market rate for international players. He’s got a fever, and the only prescription is more young talent.

    If Cahill’s good 2 years from now, he’s still not a part of the next good Padre team. Cash him in and see if he’s back in our price range after this year.

    Our farm system is nowhere near loaded enough to worry about shedding prospects to make way for rookie league graduates.