Coming into the 2011 season, I had some reservations about Trevor Cahill. Specifically I was worried that his excellent 2010, namely the 2.97 ERA, would inflate his value higher than I was willing to pay in light of the fact that his skill set didn’t necessarily portend such a gaudy ERA. He was below the recommended 2.0 K/BB rate at 1.9 thanks to a below average 5.4 K/9 rate.
Instead of missing bats, he utilized his spacious home park (2.18 ERA in 103 home innings) and strong defense (56% groundball rate and .236 BABIP) en route to his surprise season. Alas Cahill was once the 11th-best prospect in baseball according Baseball America (2009) after an impressive minor league career filled with strikeouts (9.9 K/9 in 247 innings). I mentioned in my AL West Preview that though Cahill was my regression pitcher, don’t be surprised if he shows some growth and starts missing more bats commensurate with his minor league track record.
Through two starts we are seeing a lot of strikeouts from Cahill with mixed results. In his first game, he struck out eight but lasted just 4.7 innings (because of pitch count) walking four and leaving with a no decision. Then yesterday, he continued the strikeout parade fanning seven in eight very impressive innings in Toronto. Is there a change in Cahill’s approach or are we just seeing two of his better strikeout games early in the year?
Remember that even last year he had a handful of strong strikeout games, including a back-to-back pair in June where he struck out seven St. Louis Cardinals and followed it up by fanning 10 Pittsburgh Pirates. The importance of that is to suggest that we could just be seeing his best strikeout work at the front end of the season as opposed to the beginning of a trend.
Having watched both of his starts, one thing that has stuck out to me that says we might be seeing legitimate growth is the emergence of his curveball, especially yesterday in his duel with Ricky Romero. Four of his seven strikeouts came on swings & misses of the curveball. Only two of his eight in the season opener came on swinging curves, but across the two starts it has been a significantly improved pitch.
Coming into the big leagues, the curveball was supposed to be his strikeout pitch according to his scouting reports, but it didn’t play out that way during his first two seasons. In 2009 he threw it just 102 times (3%), 28% of which were swung at and just 7% of those missed altogether. Last year he threw the curve 414 times (14%) generating a swing 30% of the time, the lowest of any of his five offerings. Batters missed 11% of the curve swings; improved results, but hardly in line with what was expected of him as he progressed through the minors.
Early on, it seems he is set on improving his success with the pitch and looking to use it a lot more. In the first outing he threw it 23% of the time inducing swings 54% of the time, 13% of which were missed. As I mentioned, only two of his strikeouts came with the curve, but the increased usage was noteworthy. Yesterday, he took another step forward with it throwing it 31% of the time, 52% of which were swung at and 18% of those missed and another 18% fouled off.
Going back to that pair of strikeout-heavy games from 2010, we see that Cahill was not reliant upon the curveball to amass those 17 punch outs across two starts. In the first against St. Louis, just two of the seven came on swinging curves. The same was true in the 10-strikeout effort against Pittsburgh giving him four in 17 (24%) as opposed to his six in 15 (40%) for the first two starts of this year. In fact in the two interleague games he only threw 30 curveballs (nearly half the total of what he’s thrown so far this year) out of 203 pitches (15%) only 1/3rd of which were swung at and eight of those were missed entirely.
So where does all of this leave us? With just two games of data, it would be foolish to make definitive statements about Cahill’s strikeout ability, but in the small sample we are seeing a change in approach that marries well with past history from the minor leagues. He is just 23 this year so it isn’t at all out of the question to expect some growth, especially with his pedigree as a prospect. From a fantasy perspective, I would be heartened by the change if I owed him, but if I was in need of strikeouts I wouldn’t rush out to trade for him just yet.
I will continue to watch Cahill closely and see if the curveball usage and its ability to induce swings & misses is an early season aberration or true change in skill making him more of a strikeout pitcher and thus a much greater fantasy baseball asset. I will post an update on Cahill in about a month.