If Eugenio Suarez is the player who’s stolen the show with the bat early on in the 2016 season for the Reds, Brandon Finnegan has been that guy among the pitchers. The southpaw dominated in his first start against the Phillies and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his outing on Monday versus the Cubs in Wrigley Field. While he doesn’t have a win to show for his performance (a perfect example of why not to read into wins and losses), the 22-year-old has shown he can hack it in the starting rotation.

Let’s break down Finnegan’s game in this week’s edition of “Kill the Win.”

2015 season

finnegan stats

It’s safe to say last year was a bit hectic for Finnegan. Fresh off an appearance in the World Series just months after being drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Royals, he started off the season in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He was subsequently called up the majors and sent back down to the minors seven times as the organization moved him back and forth between starting and relieving, which didn’t do much to help his development.

In July, he came over to the Reds along with fellow lefties Cody Reed and John Lamb in exchange for Johnny Cueto (that’s looking to be a steal of a trade, huh?). Walt Jocketty and company immediately declared their intentions for Finnegan to be a starter, and he was sent to Triple-A Louisville to begin that endeavor. He had mixed results, posting a 6.23 ERA while pitching less than four innings per outing, but was called up to the Reds in September nonetheless.

After a brief stint in the bullpen, he finished the year in the Cincinnati rotation and pitched much better than he had in the minors. While his 4.71 ERA wasn’t anything to get too excited about, he went five or more innings in each start, striking out 20 and walking seven. He did allow five home runs, but it was on a rather high home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of 21.6 percent, which is why there was such a big discrepancy between his FIP and xFIP (which accounts for league average HR/FB ratio).

Through two starts in 2016, he has shown further improvement as a starter, allowing just four runs and four hits through his first 12 2/3 innings pitched, while registering 14 strikeouts against six walks.

The big question with Finnegan has always been about whether he can stick as a starter, and early returns are suggesting he can.

What makes him effective?

A herky jerky delivery creates a lot of deception for Finnegan and it’s helped him be successful against left-handers and right-handers alike. But his success largely hinges on his plus stuff. As a reliever, he mostly relied on his sinker and slider, but has incorporated his changeup more and more since converting back to a starter.

This season, he has started using a four-seam fastball here and there with good results, but his go-to pitch has always been the sinker. As a reliever, Finnegan heavily featured it, but he’s been mixing in other pitches far more in a starting role. Through two starts this season, the pitch has been averaging 92.4 mph, but he can reach back and hit 95 when he needs to. It’s been an effective pitch for him in his short major-league career, generating a ground ball 55.9 percent of the time hitters have put it in play against him despite a fairly high spin rate of 2,334 rotations per minute (generally, the less a sinker spins, the more it sinks and the more ground balls it causes). His swing-and-miss rate on the pitch (7.7 percent) isn’t particularly high — as is the case for most pitchers on their primary offerings since batters are typically expecting it over anything else — but his above-average velocity and ground-ball rate more than make up for it.

Finnegan’s best off-speed pitch for much of his short career has been his sharp slider. This year, he’s throwing the pitch harder than he ever has, averaging 84.5 mph, an increase of 2.1 mph from last year. Through two starts, hitters aren’t swinging and missing at the pitch as they did in 2015, but they are hitting the pitch on the ground more often (83.3 GB%) and swinging at the pitch outside of the strike zone more often (52.9 O-Swing%). Of course, that’s a very small sample size, so we’ll have to see how he fares with the pitch as the season moves along. For his career, the slider has induced a grounder exactly half of the time it’s been put in play, helping contribute to the abysmal .146/.205/.268 slash line hitters have put up against it.

Although the slider was been the best putaway pitch for Finnegan as a reliever, that may be changing as a starter. In his time with the Reds, he has been throwing the change more often and in more crucial situations, as Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan pointed out:

In four starts last season, Finnegan threw 13% changeups. Through two starts this season, he’s just shy of 25%. Against the Cubs, he was at 28%. Finnegan is throwing plenty more changeups, and it’s because he’s locating the pitch better, down and around the plate. With an effective changeup, Finnegan’s starter potential is unlocked.

The chart below (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) illustrates what Sullivan is talking about. Finnegan is throwing far more changeups than ever before, while not relying so heavily on his sinker.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

After struggling with the command of his changeup last year, throwing it for a ball more than he threw it for a strike, he seems to be gaining a better feel of it, as Sullivan pointed out. While it has only gone for a strike 52 percent of the time through his first two starts, he’s already thrown the pitch 50 times, according to PITCHf/x, after throwing the pitch a total of just 51 times in 2015. Although he hasn’t relied on it heavily before this year, the changeup has always been Finnegan’s best swing-and-miss pitch (career 19.1 SwStr%), which makes it all the more important for him to locate it well.

Where can he improve?

Without a doubt, control is the top area Finnegan can improve in. His unconventional delivery leaves him susceptible to bouts of wildness, evidenced by his 13.3 BB% across all levels of professional baseball. That was on full display on two days ago during his no-hit bid, when he walked five batters on the night. There’s such a thing as being effectively wild, to be sure, but it’s generally not a great thing to be walking a lot of hitters, for obvious reasons. One of those reasons, of course, is that it knocks him out of games fairly early. Of his 26 professional starts, the longest outing Finnegan had was on Monday, when he threw 6 2/3 innings and 111 pitches. Before that, the furthest he had pitched into a game was six innings, which he did only twice. If he can display better command of the strike zone — which he has for the most part in six total starts with the Reds — and improve his pitch efficiency, he’ll be able to get deeper into games more consistently.

Conclusions

It’s still early, but Finnegan has mitigated a lot of the worries that he wouldn’t be able to be a starter in the long run. The lefty has a nasty, four-pitch repertoire that can get hitters out from both sides of the plate, while inducing a high number of strikeouts and ground outs. Although he’s still prone to shaky command from time to time and could stand to get better in that area of his game, he has largely displayed good control in his six starts as a Red (13 walks in 33 2/3 innings). In a worst-case scenario where he doesn’t work out as a starter, he’d have the potential to be one of the dominant relievers in the game, quite possibly as a shut-down closer. But given how he’s performed as a starter so far in Cincinnati, it doesn’t seem like he wants to go back to the ‘pen anytime soon.

Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

Join the conversation! 28 Comments

  1. I see lots of potential, but lots of work to do. As you mention, the control issue can be a problem in three ways: predictability – if he can’t throw strikes with off speed pitches, hitters will sit on the fastball (sinker), short outings, and little margin for error – too many walks = too many men on = one swing means trouble. This played out on Monday. A one hitter, but two runs allowed (with no help from Cingrani) and a whip of nearly 1.00. So the upside is good but I think Finnegan is going to have some ugly outings before (if) he gets consistent mechanics figured out. It will be fun (but nerve wracking) to see how he develops this year.

  2. Great job, Matt! Very good breakdown.

  3. Finnegan looks like a starting pitcher. I’m glad I was wrong in the fact I thought he would be better suited for the back end of the bullpen. He looks a bit like a left handed Roy Oswalt out there. I think we all will take that.
    He WANTS to be a starter. That is extremely important, attitude. In this regard, he seems like the Anti-Chapman. Because we know what Chapman wanted.

    • I think you touch on something important here. Finnegan looks very invested. I loved the emotion he showed after taking 2nd base on his failed bunt attempt. Can really tell he’s “all the way in.” All players should be, but its not always the case, I think.

      • I am with you. I like the youthful exuberance this team shows. In years past the players showed some emotion, so I can’t say they didn’t show any. Many times there was spontaneity, but many times it seemed canned or muted. I don’t see that this year.

        • You’re right on that. This year’s Reds team seems to have some zing in their step.

  4. Hey, our store is open. Check out the new t-shirts and our first patch!

  5. Finnegan is currently 5th in all of MLB in Win Probability Added (WPA) for starting pitchers. That’s neat!

    • And conversely, only 11 pitchers have done more damage to their team than JJ Hoover in his 2 1/3 IP.

  6. In 1991, Mo Sanford gave up 2 hits and 0 runs over 7 innings during his debut. His next 2 starts were good and then he was never heard from again. Everyone gets ” figured out”….it’s a matter of how well he can adapt and adjust.

    We don’t know anything.

    • “We don’t know anything” is a pretty poor stance for a fan blog to have, I’d say.

      • Good point, Patrick

        I don’t know anything

        • Yes, I like what I’ve seen so far. That said, I don’t know enough yet to give an opinion on rather he’ll be an effective MLB starter or not. So far though, I keep handing him the ball every 5th day.

        • And that’s what this season is all about, give ’em a chance to prove their worth and value and role going forward. That applies to the starting pitchers, relievers and position players.

        • It’s a good cautionary point, though, Chuck. The ones who are heard from again are obviously able to adapt.

  7. KC did no favors for Finnegan and his development. Of course they were in a serious hunt for the golden ring, they can be excused for sacrificing a youngster’s development for his contribution to the cause. Now the focus for Finnegan and the Reds is his development as a starter. The kid is still only 23 years old with just 6 major league starts under his belt. His control is an area that needs attention, but I see a pitcher improving with every start and committed to succeeding. Combine that with his natural talent and I’m banking on Finnegan in the starting rotation come opening day 2017. If Price had itelligently pulled Finnegan from the game on Monday, Finnegan would have finished with 6.2 innings & 1-H, 4-BB. The changeup is certainly still a work in progress, but that’s a nasty pitch he’s added to his arsenal. That, combined with his increased use of the 4-seamer to work upstairs, makes him a formidable opponent on the mound.

    I actually expect to see the entire return (Finnegan, Lamb & Reed) from the Cueto trade in the starting rotation on opening day 2017.

    • I think with Finnegan looking like he’ll stay in the rotation, that Lamb will be moved to the bullpen as we have no good left handed relievers with Cingrani pitching like he has been. Reed may start next year in AAA if we stay healthy. Iglesias/Baily/Disco/Finnegan/Stephenson would be my guess, assuming health, and we can push out Reed’s controlled years another year.

      • My concern is that Lamb’s stuff may not fit a bullpen role other than long man; and, also I think he has potential to be be a middle of the rotation starter because of his ability to miss bats over a couple of turns through a line which he demonstrated last year..

        However, barring multiple big injuries there are going to be some good pitchers going to the pen or being traded to fill holes in the upcoming generation of position guys. Looking at the team control/ arbitration situation, one of those guys could surprisingly end up being Disco who is on line for arbitration prior to the 2018 season.

  8. I know this is not completely related but any guesses on which pitcher(s) other than Simon might get traded as the rotation gets healthy and Stephenson and Reed get called up? I know there has been some talk about guys moving from the rotation to the bullpen but do we expect all rotation guys to get moved to there? I don’t see Lamb coming back and being a bullpen guy but I could be wrong. What do you guys think?

    • Imagine getting to trade Simon again for another Suarez! That would be phenomenal.

      • Yeah, that would be awesome! If he can put out some more quality outings like his last one he could build up his trade value and maybe be dealt to a team that has an injury to their rotation (not sure who that would be at this point). I know some are suggesting that Simon go to the bullpen when some of our starters return but wouldn’t that diminish his trade value to some extent? Start him until you can get something for him and if that doesn’t happen then move him to the bullpen. But it sure would be nice for lighting to strike twice in trading Simon 🙂

      • The upside for any return in a Simon trade would be a lower level prospect (A or A+) with a higher upside, possibly a hard throwing reliever, but certainly nothing even approaching a top prospect. If Simon puts up good results through 2 months and then moves to the bullpen with equally good or better results, I don’t think that dimishes his value in a trade. It may even enhance his value since his arm would be fresher for the playoff push and his utility as a back end starter or reliever would be fully demonstrated.

  9. Side item,,, The first game of Louisville’s DH today has started and Peraza is playing which I would guess means he won’t be in Chicago tonight for Cozart.

    • Well of course not, the Reds will ALWAYS wait until day 10 or later of an injury to decide to put someone on the DL and THEN bring up an able body. Thems the rules! 🙂

      • Lineup posted for tonight:

        CF Billy Hamilton (S)
        3B Eugenio Suarez (R)
        1B Joey Votto (L)
        2B B. Phillips (R)
        RF Jay Bruce (L)
        LF Scott Schebler (L)
        SS Ivan De Jesus (R)
        C Tucker Barnhart (S)
        P Alfredo Simon (R)

        No Cozart or Mesoraco

        • The line from Cody Reed’s first start at AAA today. “Final line on Cody Reed: 4.2ip, 4h, 2er, 2bb, 6k. He threw 91 pitches, 51 for strikes in his Triple-A debut. He can not get the win.”
          Looks like he labored a bit today. But not bad.

  10. I think Lamb might be one of the odd man out when everyone is available but I love his stuff too! I think Monday night might’ve turned out a little better in the 7th inning if Lamb was facing Heyward. He throws about as hard as Cingrani but that big 68 mph curve is something Tony doesn’t possess! When we get some of these guys back then maybe Price could move Simon into a late inning role? I’d trust him better than Jumbo…that’s for sure!

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About Matt Wilkes

Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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