Cingrani has one great pitch, but that’s not all
If you’re going to have one great pitch, it’s probably good to have a great fastball. It’s thrown more than all the other pitches combined, at least. But in today’s baseball, the benders and breakers get the oohs and aahs — and the appreciation of your coaching staff. Tony Cingrani has heard all about it on his way up to the big leagues.
As he progressed through the Reds’ system, the former college closer always heard from the coaching staff that he needed to work on his slider. They told him he needed the pitch to "get to the next level," Cingrani told me this spring, but he disagreed. "I’m not going to lose the game on that one pitch." So he worked on it in bullpens and on the side. And he led the minor leagues in ERA in 2013.
He made it to the big leagues on the back of that fastball, so it’s hard to disagree with his approach. What a fastball it is: according to PITCHf/x, only one pitcher threw more than 750 four-seam fastballs and got a better whiff rate on the pitch last year — Madison Bumgarner. The Reds’ lefty even got more whiffs with his four-seamer than gasaholics Matt Harvey and Max Scherzer. And by percentages, only Bartolo Colon threw the pitch more often last year. Of course he’s throwing it a ton, it’s working.
How has Cingrani thrived when everyone knows what is coming?
He can play the cat-and-mouse game, going inside and out and high to low. Only a third of his fastballs this season have been balls according to BrooksBaseball, and his ratio of four balls to every three strikes on the pitch is plus, even for a pitch known for strikes. He tries to stretch the zone, but knows he hasn’t "been around long enough yet to get those calls," as he put it, and he’s right — he got more balls called on strikes in the zone than your average pitcher last year (about 14 more than average in his 1,891 pitches). So right now he’s trying more to "figure out the umpire’s zone" than to stretch it.
But a large part of Cingrani’s excellence is deception. "I use my glove to cover the ball, and it’s just how my body works," said the pitcher. "I don’t show the ball early." Check out how the ball comes right through where the glove used to be:
But the Mariano Riveras of the world are rare, and so Cingrani has continued his effort to work on his other pitches. This year, he’s already trusting his slider and change more, as he’s doubled their combined usage in the early going. He’s still hard at work on his non-fastball pitches.
The slider? All he can do is "try to get that spin down" and then repeat, repeat, repeat. The work he’s putting in has seen some success — last year, the pitch had an average whiff rate, but this year he’s added an inch of horizontal movement and he’s getting an above-average whiff rate from the pitch (18% according to BrooksBaseball, and the league averages 15%).
Cingrani did say something surprising about his change-up. Since he’s a lefty, it’s important to have a pitch that breaks away from righties — sliders are less effective against opposite-handed hitters due to the fact that they break towards the barrel of their bat. Last year, Cingrani’s change-up hardly got any whiffs compared to the average change-up; 3.6% on FanGraphs, the average is 15%. "My change-up is better than my slider," felt the left-hander, "but since we worked so hard on the slider, I kind of got away from my change-up." Cingrani also said that they got away from using the change because he had trouble commanding it, which does show up in the numbers. The pitch was a ball 60% of the time, which is too often even for a breaking pitch.
But his assertion that a pitch that gets no whiffs is better than a pitch that gets above-average whiffs? What could Cingrani mean? Well, for one, the pitch is getting more whiffs this year (10%) and the ball rate is down (47%). But whiffs are only one half of what makes a pitch good — ground balls are also great.
Here is Baseball Prospectus’ Harry Pavlidis on what makes a good change-up, according to the PITCHf/x data he mined:
Cingrani’s change only goes about six miles slower than his fastball, but for his career, the pitch has been one of his better ground-ball pitches. Despite the lack of whiffs, his firmer change-up has promise, and could indeed show itself to be the better of his two off-speed pitches.
"I’ve been making it work with pretty much one pitch," Cingrani will admit. "It’s just all about where you put it and how hard you throw it." And yet, he’s more than that one pitch. There’s that great command of a deceptive fastball, that improving slider, and a change-up that could get him ground balls. Everything’s a little easier if you start with a great number one, though.