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.”
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.
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.
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.