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:

brooksbaseball-chart-2

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:

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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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