For a few days it seemed certain that Oakland A’s lefty starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez would be dealt in a blockbuster deal this winter. The rumors were running rampant and frequent and had names attached to them like Jesus Montero and Dellin Betances from the Yankees, Mike Stanton or Logan Morrison as a centerpiece from the Marlins and Jacob Turner and Nick Castellanos from the Tigers.
Unfortunately for Oakland, none of those came to pass (the packages from New York and Detroit or even just Stanton from Florida would’ve been an excellent return for Gonzalez), but then out of nowhere it was their other budding star pitcher, Trevor Cahill who was dealt. He was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks with Craig Breslow for prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook on December 10th.
The deal gives the reigning NL West champs a front three of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Cahill without sacrificing any of the pieces they used to win 94 games and push Milwaukee to the brink in the first round of the playoffs back in October. What will the move from the American League’s version of the west to the National League’s mean for Cahill?
He enters his age 24 season having pitched three full campaigns (at least 30 starts in each) that have yielded a mixed bag of results. He was an All-Star and down ballot Cy Young candidate in 2010, but has sandwiched that breakout with two seasons of essentially league average work (96 and 97 ERA+ totals in 2009 and 2011). Pitchers are generally expected to see an improvement when shifting to the National League just by virtue of the fact that they get to face their mound counterparts, but might Cahill have some natural growth within his talent profile, too?
Cahill came up through the minors as a highly touted prospect for Oakland after being taken in the 2nd round of the 2006 draft. He squeezed in nine professional innings after signing as an 18-year old and then proceeded to show why he was such a high pick in 2007 and 2008. He made three stops in the two years (A, High-A and AA) throwing 230 innings with a 2.66 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 and 2.8 K/BB.
His major league debut saw less than half of that strikeout rate show up as he fanned just 4.5 batters per game in 179 innings. That said, the strikeout rate has crept up yearly since he reached the majors and last year’s 6.4 K/9 in his high watermark for now. Perhaps given where he established that minor league strikeout rate, his progression in the majors should be less surprising. More on that later.
His primary asset has been the ability to induce groundballs at an elite rate (56% the last two years) which the usually sure-handed defense of the A’s* translates into plenty of outs. Combine that with a scant flyball rate in a spacious park and you can see why Cahill has enjoyed league average or better success in each of his first three seasons despite not yet topping 2.0 in his strikeout-to-walk ratio.
*The A’s defense had far and away its worst year since Cahill joined the team and not surprisingly his numbers suffered in concert. His BABIP during the 2010 season was at .236 yielding a 2.97 ERA against a 4.19 FIP while his BABIP soared to .302 in 2011 pushing his ERA to 4.16 against a 4.10 FIP. In other words, he was essentially the same guy each of the last two years, but he counts an exemplary defense for improved results. Later we will see how Arizona’s defense might suit him in 2012.
The National League
When discussing strategy with mixed league fantasy baseball managers, you will often hear someone say they lean heavily toward starting pitchers in the National League as a general principle, especially if their other choice is a pitcher in the American League East. Even if the NL pitcher is slightly less talented, a lot of times the deciding factor will be the league in which he pitches. Is it worth it? In general does leaning toward NL starting pitchers pay off?
Looking at the last three years, the answer is yes, but only marginally so. Not enough to where I would knowingly take a less talented pitcher just because he is in the assumed safe haven of the National League.
As you can see, the difference in starting pitcher strikeout rates from league to league is about 0.2-0.3 in favor of the National League while walk rates are dead even. The difference over 200 innings is a whopping three strikeouts (147 to 150). So there isn’t a major difference in strikeout rate from one league to the other even with pitchers batting and striking out 33% of the time. We saw this come to fruition in 2011 as the big pitchers who switched leagues saw inconsistent changes in their strikeout rates.
*Ubaldo Jimenez and Edwin Jackson both switched during the 2011 season resulting in smaller innings samples for each column while the others are all comparing their 2010 and 2011 full seasons.
Both Jackson and Shaun Marcum actually lost something on their strikeout rate when joining the National League while Marcum’s teammate Zack Greinke and their central division foe Matt Garza saw significant gains in their first season’s as National Leaguers. Jimenez held firm moving from Colorado to Cleveland midseason. It is a limited sample of pitchers for sure, but the point is simply that the National League doesn’t automatically yield a better strikeout rate.
What about the actual results? Do we see a discernible difference in starting pitcher ERAs from league to league?
Overall, the league ERA in the National League has been 0.20 to 0.31 better during the last three years including 0.28 better in 2011. So again there is a slight enhancement for National League-based starting pitchers over their equal American League counterparts, but keep in mind that over 200 innings, it is a seven earned run difference and just five earned runs in a 150-inning sample.
There is still no compelling case to be made for taking a lesser talented NL pitcher over even a slightly more talent AL one. If you use league home as a tiebreaker between two comparable players, then it makes sense to lean toward the National League as you should expect incremental gains in strikeout rate and ERA results.
Using Cahill’s 2011 results, he would stand to gain five strikeouts up to 152 and his ERA would shave seven runs off and move down to 3.86. Those are simple quick and dirty estimates using his 2011 results against 2011 league standards. This removes all of his context-based factors and assumes no growth.
His Home Park
Cahill leaves a park in Oakland well known for favoring pitchers and heads to Arizona to play in a park equally well known for its opposite effect on pitchers. Neither is the best at what it is known for, but Cahill will now play in the division with the most renowned stadiums for each end of the spectrum: San Diego’s PetCo Park for pitchers and Colorado’s Coors Field for hitters.
Here is comprehensive look at the park factors for the divisions Cahill is leaving and joining using Baseball-Reference’s Park Factors for just 2011 as well as the last three years combined:
(-b refers to park factor for batters; -p for pitchers)
Overall the change is minimal with the biggest difference being his less favorable home park, but his severe groundball tendency combined with the boost from the National League should mitigate most of it, especially since that doesn’t even take into account his potential to improve as a pitcher. Meanwhile, he essentially trades Texas for Colorado. Of course, Texas never really bothered him as he posted a 2.23 ERA and 2.1 K/BB rate in 40 innings (his highest count outside of Oakland) there.
The outfield dimensions of Chase Field as compared Oakland Coliseum are unlikely to impact Cahill negatively. In fact, Chase Field is deeper in almost every respect. Where Oakland Coliseum derives a great deal of its love from pitchers is in the foul territory. The expansive room available to make plays on balls that would otherwise be souvenirs in most other stadiums has saved many an Oakland pitcher. It is hard to derive how much of an impact, if any, that will have on Cahill in 2012. While I can find how many of his pitches turn into foul balls, I can’t find how many of those foul balls result in outs.
As I mentioned earlier, Cahill relies heavily on his defense. With a 56% groundball rate, a sharp infield offense is key to his success. In 2010, the top four fielders in UZR on the A’s were Cahill’s infielders: Kevin Kouzmanoff 16.1 at 3B, Daric Barton 12.1 at 1B, Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington at 9.9 apiece at 2B and SS, respectively. Of the four, only Ellis played fewer than 1231 innings (986) and the most important cog, Pennington, played 1304.
On the 2011 A’s, Ellis and Kouzmanoff were the top two rated infielders in UZR with 2.1 and 2.0 marks in 501 and 365 innings, respectively. Ellis was traded to Colorado to make way for youngster Jemile Weeks while Kouzmanoff was only in the lineup throughout 2010 because of his glove (.296 wOBA) and yet somehow got worse with the bat in 2011 (.271 wOBA) before eventually being traded to Colorado as well, though in a separate deal from Ellis. Meanwhile Pennington regressed to previous defensive levels with a -5.2 UZR in 1272 innings, which is more in line with his -4.7 and -4.5 marks from 2008 and 2009.
The aforementioned Weeks had a -4.1 UZR as the primary second baseman and Scott Sizemore was a team worst -6.0 UZR at third base. Both added a Bondsian level of offense compared to their predecessors, though, so the offensively-starved A’s had to overlook their defensive shortcomings. This no doubt affected Cahill en route to a career-worst .302 BABIP. While that isn’t too far off of the average (.299 in the AL), Cahill needs to be above average there until his base skills (missing bats and limiting free passes) improve.
The Diamondbacks were first in baseball in UZR at 55.8 in 2011. Good news for Cahill, right? Yes, but not as good as that one piece of information suggests. The bulk of Arizona’s UZR goodness is built off of their strong outfield defense: Chris Young 14.1 in CF, Gerardo Parra 9.8 in LF and Justin Upton 7.7 in RF.
But right behind those three is shortstop Stephen Drew at 4.5. His season was cut short by injury, but backup shortstop John McDonald turned in a 4.0 UZR, too. Drew has been above average each of the last three years including an 8.7 UZR in 2010. Keeping him healthy will be essential because he not only picks it, but he is a far better with the bat than McDonald.
Aaron Hill has a very strong defensive track record with a 21.7 UZR in six seasons of work and just one season below average (-4.9 in 2009). Ryan Roberts broke out in his first full season of play both at the dish and in the field. He spent the bulk of his time (902 of 1132 innings) at third base and acquitted himself well enough with a 1.7 UZR.
Defensive numbers can fluctuate year-to-year so while the Diamondbacks might not finish first in the league again in 2012, it is nice to know that all of Cahill’s new infielders have track records to back up their 2011 performance. This is a net gain for Cahill, especially with the A’s placing a premium on bat production in lieu of quality fielding (and who can blame them?). Lucky for Cahill and Arizona, their slick fielders can handle the bat, too.
His Bullpen & Offense
These two factors only really contribute to his potential win count, the predicting of which is generally foolish because of how inconsistently they correlate to quality pitching. More to the point, wins aren’t really something that starting pitchers can control because even if they pitch well for their allotment of innings, they need the bullpen to hang on. And even if the bullpen keeps their masterpiece intact, the offense needs to have earned enough runs off of the opposition’s starter and bullpen, too.
For the sake of full disclosure, let’s quickly look at both aspects. The bullpens were equal for intents and purposes in 2011 and both have the talent to do the same again in 2012. Any major differences between the two would come from fluctuating luck or a change in personnel. As it stands right now, Cahill will see no discernible gain or loss in bullpen support with the trade. Projecting forward he was more likely to lose out by staying in Oakland as they continue to discuss potential trades involving Andrew Bailey.
There seems to be a real improvement in his team offense with the move to Arizona as evidenced by the 2011 numbers of the two units:
Of course, that still doesn’t mean he will have an increase in wins. Consider his 2010 season. He went 18-8 and while the Oakland offense was better than the dreadful 2011 iteration, they still only scored 4.1 runs per game. Logic and wins don’t mingle well. Yes, you can probably afford to pitch a bit worse and register an above average win total with an offensive stalwart like the Yankees supporting you, but then you see Aaron Harang win 14 games with the Padres who scored a whopping 3.7 runs per game in 2011.
Cahill’s bullpen support remains strong and his offensive support is improved, but don’t let either have a significant impact in your 2012 analysis for him.
We have taken a look at all of the outside factors that could contribute to Cahill’s success or failure in 2012, so what about the factors he can handle? He showed during his minor league career that he can be a dominant strikeout pitcher, but you have to consider that the bulk of that work was done in the lower minors.
He skipped AAA before making his debut (subsequently logged 9 AAA IP in 2010) and posted a career-low 8.0 K/9 in a quick 37-inning stint in AA at the end of 2008. So while the gaudy 9.9 K/9 in 247 minor league innings is nice, you have to adjust more than you would normally take off for a pitcher who had a strikeout rate like that with some significant work in AA and AAA. Going from 9.9 to the 4.5 of his rookie year would have been hard to project, but he deserves credit for not crumbling under the pressure as a 21-year old who essentially came from High-A.
His improved strikeout rate seems to correlate well with the effectiveness of his curveball. I took a look at him early this season after just two starts because I noticed that his curve was generating a lot of swinging strikes. In fact, he continued to use his curveball effectively throughout the season. He used it 4% more than in 2010 (24%) and it generated a swing 5% more often (52%) resulting in strikes 5% more often (67%), 1% of which were swing-through strikes or whiffs (14%). His 2011 data; 2010 data.
This piece by David Golebiewski at Baseball Analysts looks at Cahill’s year on the whole and examines both his curveball and slider together leading to a similar conclusion that they are the key to an elevated strikeout rate for him. More to point, keeping them down so that hitters swing over the top of them will allow Cahill to generate more strikeouts as he continues to mature. Plus, the worst case scenario on a well-placed breaking pitch low in the zone is weak contact in the infield which shouldn’t be too problematic for the Diamondbacks fielders to handle.
He has posted a 3.6 BB/9 in two of his first three seasons which is in line with his 3.7 BB/9 mark as a minor leaguer, but the 2.9 BB/9 shows that there is room for improvement. He is unlikely to become Cliff Lee with his control whether now or in the future, but even incremental improvement toward that 2010 mark would be help his gaudy 1.43 WHIP.
I really like Cahill’s outlook for 2012. I would have liked it in Oakland, too, but the move to Arizona only helps matters. Despite the bouncing ERA from 2.97 to 4.16, he was virtually the same exact pitcher in 2010 and 2011. In fact, his secondary numbers say just that:
It is hard not to be impressed with what he has accomplished as a 21 to 23 year old in his 583 career innings. He only has the one standout season from a fantasy aspect, but there is a burgeoning skill set worth buying into just as the Diamondbacks did with the trade.
I see him with a ceiling of around seven and a half strikeouts per game, though we may only see another incremental gain in 2012. We have probably already seen his best walk rate at 2.9 in 2010, but he can get there again and it could be as soon as 2012. Add in the improved defense closer to what he enjoyed in 2010 and I think we see something like in the following ranges for Cahill in 2012:
ERA: 3.60 – 3.92 (a spread of 7 ER in 200 IP)
WHIP: 1.24 – 1.30 (a spread of 13 base runners in 200 IP)
K/9: 6.7 – 7.5 (149-167 Ks in 200 IP)
BB/9: 2.9 – 3.4 (65-76 BBs in 200 IP)
W: these projections are enough to net 15+, but always remember that wins are unpredictable
I chose to do ranges because the accuracy of firm numbers is so low and the difference in actual performance between those ranges is pretty reasonable across a 26-week season as you can see from the information in parentheses next to each category. Cahill is currently the 44th starting pitcher off the board in early mock drafts at MockDraftCentral.com which puts him in the 13th round at 164 overall.
Right now I don’t hate him at that 164th spot, but I think that is full price and I would opt to wait for some of the names behind him Doug Fister (180), Jaime Garcia (193), Derek Holland (197), Matt Moore (203), Javier Vazquez-assuming he doesn’t retire (246) and Ricky Nolasco (258) to name a few. I see some, if not all, of those names eventually passing Cahill in ADP along with Yu Darvish (206) depending where he ends up.
In a mock draft (14-team mixed league) I’m currently involved in, I got him in the 21st round with pick 286 which I thought was a steal. I suspect as more players get signed and we get closer to draft season his ADP will dip lower than 164 making him something of a bargain.