Tony Cingrani’s Early-Frame Foul-Ups

On Wednesday, Tony Cingrani put forth another disappointing outing, the third of his in 2014 in which he failed to complete more than five innings. Two of those starts have come against the Chicago Cubs, for whatever that’s worth. He’s expended more than 20 per pitches per inning in each of those three semi-clunkers, and each has resulted in a sub-50 Game Score.

The fact that he might labor through some starts isn’t surprising. No one expects him to lead the league in quality starts. He’s allowed seven earned runs total in the first stanza, one in the second and four in the third in 2014. I figured I’d try to discern what the particular problem or set of problems is when the folks at “MLB Tonight” on MLB Network threw a graphic on the screen comprised of those tallies. Such exaggeration doesn’t seem to have existed in his splits last season, according to info from Baseball Reference.

Naturally, I became more interested when Mitch Williams suggested that Cingrani, known for his heavy reliance on his fastball, is too predictable in those first few innings because he wants to establish his primary weapon. Does the data back Wild Thing up?

Logically, Cingrani made an effort to establish his heater – about seven-eighths of the time – last year. This season he’s done so about three-quarters of the time in those first few frames. (I must note that Brooks Baseball data isn’t yet available for his sixth start of this season.)

Tony Cingrani Pitch Type by Inning 2013Tony Cingrani Pitch Type by Inning 2014

For whatever reasons – a desire to become less predictable in the first place, the improvement of those secondary pitches, etc. – he’s resorted to the No. 1 a little less often. Eno Sarris, in a feature earlier this month, talked to the Cincinnati Reds’ left-hander about the pitcher’s efforts to diversify the arsenal. In general, Cingrani’s work-in-progress slider and changeup have been more effective this year, in terms of swings and misses and generation of grounders.

But his usage of the fastball early is still pretty high. Are opponents just sitting on fastballs right away and letting everything else go, and for some reason it’s a more effective approach right away? Is he failing to locate with the breaking stuff early and becoming predictable because of it? It’s hard to tell from charts for pitches in and outside the strike zone, which don’t include separations by pitch type, but the effectiveness of his secondary stuff hasn’t really varied by inning, so that seems unlikely.

Tony Cingrani Zone by Inning 2013Tony Cingrani Zone by Inning 2014

Overall, he’s been in the strike zone considerably more often in the first inning than he has in the second and third frames. On the whole for the first three frames, there appears to be no issue, but perhaps the discrepancy between his location in the first and next couple of frames will lead to further evidence for the concentration of his struggles in the first stanza.

And if there seems to be no issue with the slider or changeup throughout the game, perhaps it’s his bread and butter that’s the problem. It’s definitely interesting to note that the whiff percentage of his fastball is down noticeably in the first couple of innings this season.

Tony Cingrani Whiff Percentage by Pitch Type by Inning 2014Tony Cingrani Whiff Percentage by Pitch Type 2013-2014

Is it possible that Cingrani’s fastball just isn’t as good overall as it was last year? Doubtful. The overall swing-and-miss rate of the pitch hasn’t really changed from year to year. The whiff rate of the offering increases markedly in later innings this season, too.

If the pitch just isn’t as effective early for whatever reason, then it makes sense that opponents have hammered his four-seamer in the first three innings. What doesn’t seem to mesh is the fact that they’ve hit it hardest in the second and third frames, not the first.

Tony Cingrani ISO vs Pitch Type by Inning 2014Tony Cingrani Velocity by Inning 2014

Cingrani’s velocity is down a smidge this season compared to last, but it hasn’t been an issue in the first inning. In the second and third (as well as fourth), for whatever reasons, however, as you can see, it has dipped notably and kind of aligns with those second- and third-inning hammerings.

Of course, most of the damage has still come in the first frame. That’s where he’s spent most of his time this season.

No. Pitches by Inning (2013) No. Pitches by Inning (2014)
Inning Total IP P/IP Inning Total IP P/IP
1 319 18 17.7 1 116 6 19.3
2 319 18 2/3 17.1 2 74 6 12.3
3 290 18 16.1 3 89 6 14.8
4 280 17 2/3 15.8 4 74 6 12.3
5 215 15 14.3 5 59 4 14.8
6 126 9 14.0 6 46 3 15.3
7 131 6 2/3 19.7 7 26 1 1/3 19.5
8 32 1 2/3 19.2

I must note that the data from 2013 includes five relief appearances, which account for 7 1/3 innings, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s close enough.

Cingrani, 24, struggled at times to go longer than four innings last season, too. His control in general (10.2% in 2013 versus 12.5% this year) has been a bigger issue in 2014. Naturally, a pitcher who has problems with his control is probably going to suffer for it. Perhaps the data from last year is smoothed out by more good beginnings to his starts than bad.

It’s hard to continue to survive at that rate, though. Inefficiency early might burn him out. It’s worth noting that his velocity was reportedly maxing out at 89 last night. He was quoted after last night’s start as saying that he feels fine physically, but he also felt fatigued. When he consistently throws 20-plus pitches in the first inning, that seems bound to happen eventually.

Is Cingrani entering a dead-arm period? Is he injured, even if he hasn’t acknowledged it or may not be aware of it? MLB Network analyst Al Leiter offered an alternative theory last night: Cingrani hasn’t allowed himself enough time to warm up prior to his starts. I don’t know how to verify that, but it’s possible.

For the sake of his owners, let’s hope that the primary factor here is his potentially inadequate game-day preparation. Judging from the way his results improve dramatically as the game unfolds, that scenario seems much likelier than a health problem. Poor warmups and his early inefficiency could easily contribute to dead arm, though.

Still, if it holds up, then it would appear to have a relatively easy fix. Cingrani has clearly made strides in the development of his secondary pitches. But they probably haven’t made the kind of progress necessary to offset decreased effectiveness of his heater early in his starts. Perhaps he’s instead or also failing to throw the breaking and off-speed stuff for strikes early. Either way, or both ways, he apparently needs to change something in order to get on top of things in the first inning.

There seems to be no reason to panic. But it might be a good idea to bench the southpaw in the short term, if you’re in a shallow league and can afford to do so, until the news and/or indications point to some greater efficiency in the early stanzas and overall. It’s incredibly difficult to pick and choose, because the outcomes seem to have less to do with the foe than Cingrani. He’s expanding his repertoire, but he seems to need some time to figure out how to dominate with regularity.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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10 years ago

effective not affective … seeing this misuse often on FG lately.