ST. LOUIS -- Tony Cingrani will find holes in a hitter's swing and exploit them with his electric fastball. As one of the game's most exciting young arms, he has found success in the majors in the most unconventional way, without calculated thoughts on how he pitches and relying primarily on one pitch.
In a baseball era filled with heat maps, video, PITCHf/x data and specialized training, a pitcher usually has to balance his strengths with a hitter's weakness. That development usually requires grooming and learning to pitch at the major league level.
"I don't even think about it. I just throw it," Cingrani says. "There's literally no thought process. It just goes. That's all it is."
For Cingrani, the Cincinnati Reds 6-foot-4, 215-pound lefty, that one pitch, his four-seam fastball, came naturally.
"That was just what happened," Cingrani recalls of learning to pitch when he was young. "I don't know. I never worked on anything."
Coaches along the way, even in little league, never helped him develop the pitch?
"No, I just always threw a four-seam," Cingrani says. "My four-seam moved more than my two-seam, so I just kept throwing the four-seam."
Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings, only Bartolo Colon threw his fastball more often than Cingrani's rate of 82 percent. Through his first two starts of 2014, he has thrown it 74 percent of the time.
A third-round pick out of Rice in 2011, Cingrani says the Reds "kind of changed my arm path a couple of years ago. This is the result of it."
With a little observation, one can see that every once in a while Cingrani's elbow gets a little high in his delivery just as his foot lands. Some categorize this as an injury risk to pitchers, but Cingrani says the change in his arm path had nothing to do with health concerns.
"The whole thing was timing with my lower half and my arm path and just allowing my arm to move a little more freely," Cingrani says. "It added a lot more velocity and deception."
When a pitcher has more movement on his fastball, he is able to do more against hitters with a single pitch. According to FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data, the horizontal movement on Cingrani’s four-seam fastball ranks fourth among left-handed starters this year in the majors, averaging 7.2 inches.
The biggest question for the Reds is if he's going to be OK relying on his fastball or if he's going to have to eventually use his secondary pitches more often.
"My feeling is that hitters will tell pitchers where they need to make their adjustments," Reds manager Bryan Price says. "Tony has worked hard on his breaking ball and his changeup. They've improved markedly. That being said, he's had a lot of great games where he primarily dominated with his fastball."
Price says guys can succeed using their fastball a high percentage of the time and do well in the majors. He recalls Jerry Reuss and Sid Fernandez as two examples. Fernandez in particular was a guy who, like Cingrani, pitched up in the zone.
"He's a guy that has a lot of success at the top of the zone and above. But when he doesn't have the plus velocity, there's times where that pitch isn't that effective," Price says. "So that's where the off-speed mix, or the improved command, or maybe even needing to pitch lower into the zone [comes into play].
"He made some good pitches with his slider the other day to left-handed hitters. But you know when he doesn't have his electric stuff, that's when I think you have to rely a little bit more on the secondary pitches."
Comparing The Young Arms
A look at the pitch breakdown from some of last year's top rookie pitchers, by percentage. Totals are from 2013 through Saturday, from ESPN Stats & Information.
Cingrani agrees with the prevailing opinion around baseball: Starters need several pitches.
"I think you need to have them to slow down hitters," Cingrani says. "To be the best, I say you have to have three really good pitches. To be competitive up here, you only need two, I think."
Cingrani’s changeup has always been his second-best pitch.
"I just got away from it in the last year and a half because they've been making me work on the slider a lot more," Cingrani says. "[The changeup] is more of a feel pitch than the slider. [The slider's] just that grip-and-rip-it type pitch; the slider is a little bit easier to get over right now."
Cingrani says he wants to give the Reds a chance to win every time he pitches. His goals are as simple as his approach to pitching.
"Just health and see where it goes," he said.
A kid pitcher making his way to greatness gives good advice. Sometimes the best approach is just to grip it and rip it.
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.