How injury has changed Padres’ Cashner for good
When the Padres traded for Andrew Cashner before the 2012 season, he was a reliever with a nasty knuckle slider and a 100 mph fastball — and injury issues. The Padres believed that he could become the front-line pitcher that he is today, so they were willing to trade a good young position player for him. The weird thing is that those injuries helped Andrew Cashner find the right pitching mix.
You could say he was just adjusting to starting, but there were two starts in there before he strained his shoulder that year. And you could say the new lower velocity was just injury-caused, but then there are the words of the pitcher: "When I tried to throw too hard was when I blew my arm out on a 96-mph pitch," Cashner said before a game against the Giants in late April. The result? "I don’t try to throw 100 any more."
Even as a starter, Cashner was averaging 96 on the fastball before his injury, a mark that no other starter was able to match. Now he’s averaging just under 94 on the four-seamer, which is good for 14th in the league among starters.
"94 works," he shrugged. "Sometimes less is more — I still have my max when I need it." He’s hit 98+ twice this season and did the same 13 times last year, with two 100s sprinkled in, so it’s definitely there when he needs it. And by FanGraphs’ pitch-type values — a stat that weights outcomes on different pitch types — Cashner’s four-seamer was the second-best four-seamer among starters last year. So, yeah, this velocity works, too.
Not only does Cashner preserve his arm by backing off his four-seam velocity, but he’s also made a move to throw the pitch less often. Over the last two years, he’s slowly begun to throw the two-seam fastball more often than the four-seam. In 2013, he threw three four-seamers for every two-seamer, and now he’s throwing two two-seamers for every four-seamer. He added it to his arsenal last year after the All-Star break, and it’s a pitch that he’s still learning to command while "having the right movement," he said. But he’s made the pitch a priority.
Why is the two-seamer important to him? It’s all about "getting quick outs," as the pitcher puts it. "I try to throw nine innings every time I’m out there. The sinker allows me to stay in the game longer." In 2012, Cashner averaged over 17 pitches per inning — this year, he’s down under 15 per inning. Considering that, to some extent, every pitch is bad for you, saving more than 10 pitches per outing could be significant over the course of a season.
We have to be a little careful using the PITCHf/x classifications when we discuss Cashner’s pitches. "Sometimes you throw sliders and they put change-ups up on the board," he joked about the automatic displays in the ballpark based on similar algorithms. His curve, for example. He said he throws three or four a game. We have him barely throwing any at FanGraphs. But if you look for pitches in the 70s, you start to see a gaggle of pitches with eight-plus inches of drop that look more like curveballs.
This problem is a little pervasive when it comes to his pitches. Because of his sliders. Yeah, he’s got two sliders. He didn’t start out that way, though.
The knuckle slider:
"I’ve always thrown the knuckle slider. I kind of went away from that last year because I had thumb surgery. I just couldn’t get on top of the baseball, so I went away from it and went to a more traditional slider," said Cashner. Looking at the grip above, you can see that the thumb is more involved than the standard slider grip below. But once his thumb was lacerated by a friend helping him dress a deer and his knuckle slider started hanging, he had no choice but to learn a standard slider.
The regular slider:
As the year progressed, his thumb felt better and he began spiking the slider a little. "I would never abandon something that had given me success," Cashner said of his trusty knuckle slider. That was good news for the whiff rate on his slider — it went up from 8% in the first half (15% is average) to 18% in the second half once he brought the knuckle slider back in.
Former college pitcher Wes Yee demonstrates the difference between a knuckle ball breaking pitch release and a traditional breaking ball release.
You’d think that kind of difference in swinging strike results would inspire Cashner to put the old slider in his back pocket, but no, he’s throwing both this year. "It just depends on how it feels, some days are different than others — I’d say I throw the traditional one more often but I’ll spike it still during the game," he said. Having both gives him two different looks — "One tends to be harder, one’s bigger."
Using that as a rubric, let’s try to find one of each. Hopefully that’s his regular slider on the left, and his knuckle slider on the right. Both are from his April 5 start against the Marlins this year.
We went on to talk about how his knuckle slider was different than the knuckle curves thrown by his teammates Ian Kennedy and Eric Stults. It seems that where a knuckle curve is thrown a little more over the top, a knuckle slider can be released more over the side. A.J. Burnett, for example, throws a knuckle curve but drops his arm angle to create a knuckle slider. It’s all a spectrum, but watch Yee demonstrate some of the differences between a knuckle curve and knuckle slider below.
Not every adjustment Cashner has made has been the result of injury. He has altered his change-up just to improve the movement on the pitch. He moved from the four-seam change-up on the left (below) to the two-seam change-up on the right. Take note of the placement of the seams. In the process, he gained some horizontal movement and doubled his whiff rate on the pitch.
The old four-seam change-up (left) and the new two-seam change-up (right):
But even with the nice new whiffs on the pitch, Cashner is not throwing the change as much this year. "Just cause my two fastballs have been too good to get away from — I think it’ll be something as I mix in more as the year goes on," he said of the change-up. For now, he’ll aim his sinker at a lefty’s front hip and "they’ll take it every time" — even if he misses his spot a bit.
"Right now, I think the biggest thing is command of my fastball," said Cashner of his current focus. To some extent, that’s because past injuries have taught him the importance of an effortlessly aimed mid-90s fastball with great movement. The two sliders, the change-up, the curve — their time will come and go, depending on how he feels that day. But good, ole No. 1 is where it all starts.