Tony Cingrani has one pitch, or at least that’s how our conversation started. Michael Pineda has two, or at least that’s why I’ve been skeptical of him. Maybe thinking about these two pitchers can help us understand the relative importance of each type of pitch a little better.
First, it seems like Cingrani actually has two pitches now. His slider has an 18.2% whiff rate, so all the work he’s done on the pitch is finally coming through. With a couple inches of drop, it’s both his tightest pitch and also the one that drops the most. The new plane has given him a new weapon, and he’s throwing the pitch almost three times as often now.
But if we like starting pitchers with three pitches — they have to get hitters of both hands out, and get through the lineup three times — Cingrani seems to fail the test. His change-up gets six percent whiffs this year, which is terrible even if it’s double the number he got last year. The average change gets 15% whiffs.
Over in New York, the finally healthy Michael Pineda is getting a 22% whiff rate on his sliders to continue a short career full of good work with the pitch. If that number were to hold up all year under a starter’s workload, Pineda’s slider would rank in the top ten, somewhere around the slide-pieces thrown by Clayton Kershaw and Matt Garza.
But Pineda’s never had a good change-up. At least, it wasn’t good in Seattle, when it got a 5% whiff rate. It’s getting whiffs this year, but the sample is tiny… the good news is this: it’s a firm change-up (~5mph difference between the change and the fastball), that got 50% grounders in Seattle. If he can use the pitch for grounders from lefties, he might be okay. The bad news is that the pitch hasn’t gotten grounders much this year so far, but we return to the small sample on the pitch.
In some ways, Cingrani’s change-up is in the same place as Pineda’s. Both are firm change-ups that are best used for grounders, both have inconsistent histories. Neither is a plus pitch, but both pitchers have good breakers… and good fastballs.
Cingrani’s fastball is top three in baseball despite only sitting between 91 and 92. Perhaps it’s that deception, or great command, but he had the second-best whiff rate on his fastball among qualified starters. When Michael Pineda was sitting 94, his fastball came close to Cingrani’s in whiff rate (9.3% to Cingrani’s 11%). But now Pineda is sitting 92 and his fastball can’t really compare in terms of whiffs, and the Yankee has always been a fly ball guy.
Eventually we’ll be able to make a number sentence out of something that currently reads like this: Pineda FB < << Cingrani FB, Pineda SL >> Cingrani SL, Pineda CH = Cingrani CH. That can all be done with Z-scores, no problem. The trick is that each pitch is not worth the same amount. If by sheer quantity alone — the fastball is thrown more than the rest of the pitches in baseball combined — the fastball is most important pitch. This number sentence would favor Cingrani by some amount because he owns the fastball portion, in other words.
But we all knew that we wanted Cingrani over Pineda, didn’t we? The important news might be that we should be watching the ground-ball rates on their change-ups. Neither has the ten mph difference you look for in whiffy change-ups, so they should be throwing firmer changes and looking for grounders. And if they can get those grounders, these two pitchers might actually have complete arsenals.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.