Why move Cingrani to the bullpen?

Tony Cingrani is headed to the bullpen for the Reds. He’s not happy about it, but that’s where he’s going. Cincinnati manager Bryan Price announced as much on Monday; Chris Mosch covered the transition in Tuesday’s Rumor Roundup. With Homer Bailey starting the season on the disabled list, there are three open spots in the Reds’ rotation, but Cingrani will no longer compete for one of them. Instead, Price will select three of Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani, Paul Maholm and Jason Marquis to chug through opponents’ first 18 or 20 batters early in the season.

It would be too harsh to call this decision stupid or unconscionable, but it seems too little to simply call it wrong. Even if Cingrani weren’t angry about the change, the Reds would have dropped the ball. Chris gave a quick overview of the reasons for the switch—Cingrani’s extreme, fastball-heavy approach, his troublesome medical track record, and the team’s desire to plug permanent solutions into the two permanently vacant rotation spots, rather than get caught in a numbers game when Bailey returns and lose Marquis or Maholm in the process. It’s easy enough to see what the Reds are thinking here. That’s why it’s so frustrating that they missed the mark so badly and botched the decision.

Now, Cingrani is an imperfect starting-pitcher prototype. He relies heavily on his fastball (and specifically, on the combination of exceptional arm-side run and a deceptive delivery) to get outs. He has a very wide platoon split, one that isn’t likely to regress much, given the way right-handed batters can gear up for his heat. He also faded as starts went on last season. To wit:

It doesn’t seem like much, and he’s by no means the most egregious case of this, but as Cingrani progresses through a start he sheds some of the lateral movement that sets his fastball apart. As Noah Woodward found in an article for The Hardball Times 2014 Annual, horizontal movement is the one thing many pitchers hold onto as a game goes on. Everyone loses velocity; everyone loses vertical movement. That tailing or running action, though, is something nearly half of all starters maintain deep into their outings. Cingrani isn’t such a pitcher, or hasn’t been up to now.

There’s another good reason for the Reds to at least consider this move, one that hasn’t been talked about much, but which could be important, under different circumstances: They need a lefty in their bullpen. Aroldis Chapman’s impact is sadly diminished by his entrapment in the modern closer’s role, but it would be even more laughably marginalized as a left-handed specialist. In the middle innings, when the Reds need to get through a high-leverage frame and take care of two tough lefties along the way, they have only Manny Parra there—or they did, before they added Cingrani to the mix.

Cingrani really could be a weapon against lefties:

He’ll certainly benefit from the move in this regard, too. Opposing managers so stacked the lineup when Cingrani started that he faced lefties only 21 percent of the time last season. A good lefty reliever, even a generalist, can expect to see lefties more than twice that often. (Other than Chapman, at least. The combination of his deadliness against lefties and the rigidity of the closer’s role led to him facing lefties only 21 percent of the time, just like Cingrani. The next-lowest number for a reliever with at least 40 innings pitched was Glen Perkins’s 28 percent.)

In other words, there is a rationale for the moving Cingrani—just not a rationale for the timing. The Reds aren’t in any position to leverage whatever modest gains Cingrani might be able to provide by transitioning to the pen. We give the Reds 13.1 percent playoff odds, and the bulk of even those chances lie in making only the Wild Card play-in game. This is a veteran team with limited upside, except in that their talent could carry them near the front of the division if they all stay healthy. The problem, of course, is that betting on Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, or Marlon Byrd staying healthy is usually a good way to lose money fast, and that the team is hardly chock-full of pitchers with long track records of good health.

No, the Reds aren’t going anywhere in 2015, and that’s what makes Cingrani’s relegation so galling. A wise team spends a rebuilding year performing experiments, gathering information, and most importantly, exercising patience. Players whose development doesn’t match the pace of forward progress for winning teams often have to be dispensed with. It’s the price of success. For mediocre teams, though, a player like Cingrani—a 25-year-old who has demonstrated success, despite the obvious potential for further physical and mental maturation—is a perfect candidate to get some extra opportunities. The probabilities might be stacked against Cingrani being a long-term starter, but the Reds are making that call a year earlier than they have any need whatsoever to make it. For his career, mostly as a starter, Cingrani’s four-seam fastball has missed the bats of 23.8 percent of the batters who swung at it. That’s the fifth-highest whiff rate for any pitcher who has thrown at least 1,000 pitches since PITCHf/x started tracking pitches in 2008. To give up on the starting career of a pitcher with that kind of potential for dominance before he’s 30, let alone 26, is to trade in half the possible reward within that arm for a 10 percent reduction in risk. He might lack a useful second or third pitch right now, but if given time to fail and adjust and work on things while the team turns it around, he could well find a cutter or a splitter or who-the-Hell-knows-what in a year or two, and if that happens, the ceiling on pitchers with his fastball profile has naked people painted on it.

Price’s quotes about the move emphasize the presence of Maholm and Marquis as factors in the choice to shorten up Cingrani. Here’s hoping that’s a simplified, political way of saying it’s not about them at all. If the move is truly motivated by the need to make room for those two replacement-level journeymen, both Price and Walt Jocketty would be overdue to be fired. Even if it’s motivated by a vision of a more efficient overall pitching staff, it’s ill-advised, but at least that would be a noble idiocy.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @MATrueblood