Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Trevor Cahill tells statheads to shove it
By David Schoenfield
OK, Trevor Cahill didn't really say that.
But would you blame him if he did?
Last season, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA. Opposing hitters batted just .220/.287/.332 off him. However, because his strikeout rate was just 5.4 per nine innings, the common refrain was that Cahill wasn't that good. He was just lucky. Setting aside for the moment the philosophical debate that his 2.97 ERA was a real result and did actually happen, the point being made was that Cahill wasn't dominant so much as he was lucky on balls in play. Baseball Prospectus, in their season annual, wrote "... Cahill boasted a .238 BABIP [batting average on balls in play], the lowest among AL pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. That apparent assist from Lady Luck is the one concern with the A's rotation."
Cahill's FIP (fielding independent pitching) from FanGraphs was 4.19. His fair run average from Baseball Prospectus was 4.06. In other words, the analysts said Cahill's ability was that of a mediocre starter rather than that of a potential ace. The projections expected similar results: ZiPS projected a 3.95 ERA, Prospectus a 4.14 ERA.
But here we are, eight starts into the season, and Cahill is 6-0 with a 1.72 ERA. He's allowed 10 runs and while thousands of words have been spilled about Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson, not much has been said about Cahill.
As smart as the projection systems are, they can't account for everything. And pitchers -- young pitchers, in particular -- can improve. They can develop a new pitch, or improve their command, or learn how to attack hitters better. Cahill was a top-rated prospect coming up through the Oakland system. Scouts loved his stuff and his knowledge of pitching, even if he didn't have an explosive fastball. What's happened this year? He's gotten better. His strikeout rate has improved to 7.7 per nine, making up for the fact that his BABIP has risen to .257. He gets great movement on both his sinking fastball and changeup. He's throwing more first-pitch strikes this season (62 to 57 percent) and hitters are making less contact.
But here's something I noticed and a reason why I had a feeling Cahill had a good chance to defy the statistical expectations for him this year: He doesn't give up a lot of solid contact. He allowed 19 home runs last season -- a fairly normal rate -- but only 20 doubles. He allowed just 40 extra-base hits in 197 innings. That's .20 extra-base hits per innings, a figure that matched Clay Buchholz for the lowest rate in the majors among starting pitchers. BABIP doesn't differentiate between singles and doubles; they're treated equally. Now, maybe some of that figure is attributable to Oakland's defense (Gio Gonzalez was third, although teammate Ben Sheets had one of the worst rates), but groundball pitchers like Cahill do tend to give up fewer extra-base hits. And this season? We're seeing the same results: His home run rate is actually down a bit (three home runs in 52 1/3 innings), but he's allowed only five doubles (and Oakland outfield isn't as good with the likes of Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson seeing time out there).
Maybe Cahill will regress; some still argue that his BABIP is due for a correction. His current FIP is 2.87, and obviously he's unlikely to keep up a 1.72 ERA. But I believe this guy has become one of the best pitchers in the league.
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