When Andrew Cashner came to the Padres in a January 2012 trade that sent first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs, fans in San Diego were not amused. Rizzo, part of the haul for Adrián González, posted X-rated numbers in the hitters paradise known as Tucson and gave folks hope for a future brighter than anything Brad Hawpe or Jorge Cantú had to offer.
Rizzo struggled in his first big-league stint, facing better pitching in an unforgiving ballpark. The talent was obvious, as were the holes. People dreamed of vintage Ryan Howard rather than the more realistic Adam LaRoche.
At the time, I believed the Padres could get more than “just a reliever” for Rizzo. My belief may or may not have had any basis in reality. Same with my understanding of Cashner. When I saw him in spring training. I nearly did a quadruple take.
Finding a Role
Speed thrills, and the young right-hander from Texas did not disappoint. From my comments in Baseball Prospectus 2013:
Acquired from the Cubs before the season, Cashner wowed observers with a triple-digit fastball and biting slider… Cashner’s stuff can make hitters look silly, but the former college closer has yet to prove he can bear up to a starter’s workload. His upside is enormous, as is his risk.
The former first-round pick split time between the big leagues, Triple-A, and the disabled list in 2012. His success last year was working 70 innings, although striking out 10 batters per 9 innings for the big club added an element of sexy.
Still, it wasn’t clear what the Padres had. As Bryant noted back in February:
While common sense dictates that a larger role may result in greater organizational value, a defined role and regimented approach might be able to hone Cashner’s plan of attack instead of jerking him between the rotation and bullpen.
Viewed as a reliever by many industry experts, Cashner made a handful of starts in 2012. His first for the Padres was the only game I saw on television last year, and I’ll not soon forget his three-pitch strikeout of reigning MVP Ryan Braun.
Striking out Braun is great, but I once saw Cla Meredith abuse Albert Pujols. Much as I liked Meredith, a single anecdote didn’t make him a great pitcher.
Cashner began the year in the bullpen after last winter’s hunting accident that required surgery on his right thumb, but quickly moved into the rotation. For someone who hadn’t started regularly since 2009 in Double-A, he took to it well.
The demands of a starter are different from those of a reliever. Cashner can’t just hurl 98-mph fastballs 20 at a time and call it a night. Now he is expected to work six or more innings, which calls for more finesse and a different kind of resiliency. Instead of bouncing back the next day, he must bounce back the next frame.
As pitching coach Darren Balsley said in May, “He’s learning efficiency. It’s not all about velocity.” Still, what stands out about Cashner’s season is that he is striking out fewer batters:
*K% is K/PA. Not all innings are created equal, so this is a little more precise than K/9. League average: 20.0 in 2012, 19.6 so far in 2013. Higher is better.
**OPS is OBP+SLG compiled by batters against the pitcher. League average: 722 in 2012, 710 so far in 2013. Lower is better.
Cashner isn’t blowing hitters away the way he did last year, but overall he has been more effective. Sacrificing power for efficiency can be viewed in a few different ways depending on one’s perspective. The fact that he is still below average for a starting pitcher (18.9 K% in 2013) bears watching, but is it a red flag?
No. Not yet, anyway.
Cashner, who turns 27 next week, is working in a new role. He’s gaining experience and developing as a pitcher. That his strikeouts are down doesn’t mean they always will be. Meanwhile, he’s finding other ways to get guys out.
He isn’t throwing as hard as he did out of the bullpen. This is a conscious decision by Cashner and Balsley to keep him in games longer. He has also introduced the occasional curveball:
Cashner’s whiff rate is down across the board. It’s particularly noticeable with the changeup and slider, which we’ll examine later:
Struggling against Southpaws
One new problem has been retiring left-handed batters:
This is a complete reversal from 2012, in an admittedly much smaller sample size:
Note the difference in the two pitches he throws most often to lefties:
His fastball has been tougher on lefties, who punish his secondary pitches. Here’s the changeup:
It’s not a great pitch either way, but it’s useless against southpaws. His sinker is even worse:
More like a stinker. Same with the slider, although he seldom throws that to lefties.
It’s no accident that half the batters Cashner has faced in 2013 are southpaws. Until he proves that he can get them out with regularity, managers will continue to stack their lineups. This is something Balsley and Cashner can work on next spring.
The big changes on moving into the rotation this year have been mixing in the sinker more often and adding the curveball to complement the hard slider:
We would expect greater diversity from a starter, and that’s what he’s given us.
Unfortunately, as Chris Cwik at FanGraphs pointed out in May, the slider hasn’t been what it once was. Cashner confirmed this, telling the U-T after a dominant August 25 start against his original team, “That was the first time all season that I had my slider, which meant it was the first time all year I could call on all four of my pitches.” A July 13 article mentioned that he was “overhauling the slider,” which may help explain Cwik’s earlier findings.
As for the changeup, Balsley is a fan. From that same July article: “I always thought he was more suited to start games because he has a great grasp of the change-up.”
Manager Bud Black also likes the pitch:
He has great feel for the change. I think every pitcher works on the changeup, but he’s to the point now where he feels as comfortable with it as he does throwing his fastball in critical situations. For him moving forward, it’s a huge, huge plus.
Cashner has a different opinion, saying in early August that “the change-up is the pitch I’ve been struggling with. I have been leaving it up way too much.”
He has increased the separation between his fastball and changeup during the season. It was 9-10 mph in April and May, 11-12 from June onward. That’s not a huge difference, but it doesn’t take much to upset a hitter’s timing. It’s also hard not to wonder if the increased separation between fastball and changeup is part of a larger strategy to subdue southpaws.
Am I spinning this? Maybe, but it’s not unreasonable to think that we’re seeing a guy at the big-league level learn how to harness his stuff and become a legitimate number three starter.
Injury remains a risk, as it does for all pitchers, and maybe moreso for Cashner because of his history. As Kevin Goldstein observed ($) when the Padres acquired him, “there is plenty of reason to believe he’s just not designed to pitch 200 innings per year.” I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t concern me, despite the fact that he’s held up so far in his first extended shot as a starter.
Other issues? Well, his home/road splits are a bit extreme (2.14 ERA, 589 OPS, 3.46 K/BB at home; 4.61, 756, 1.88 on the road this year), although he was more effective away from Petco Park in 2012, so this may be a sample size issue.
Regardless, as with Tyson Ross (whom we recently examined), there is upside. There are many reasons that such upside might not manifest itself. But if we’re going to dwell on those to the exclusion of possible positive outcomes, we might as well just give up now. I don’t mean on baseball, I mean on life.
Talk-radio philosophy aside, Cashner figures to be one of the more exciting pitchers on the Padres headed into 2014. And while that is sort of damning with faint praise, it beats the “promise” of a rotation headed by Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard.
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