Kill the Win

Control continuing to hold Tony Cingrani back

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when Tony Cingrani was regarded as a top-five prospect in the Reds organization.

The 2011 third-round draft pick moved rapidly through the Reds’ farm system, making his way to the big leagues at the end of the 2012 season. In 2013, his first full year, it looked like the left-hander would live up to the lofty expectations baseball experts had for him. Appearing in 23 games (18 starts), he posted a sub-three ERA, struck out hitters at an elite rate (28.6 percent) and amassed 1.5 fWAR.

But since then, nothing has been quite the same for the former Rice University standout.

Expected to be a key cog in the starting rotation for years to come, Cingrani pitched just 63 1/3 largely ineffective innings in 2014, and ended up missing most of the season with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. Prior to being shut down, he saw his strikeouts decrease by nearly two per nine innings. What was more alarming (and a sign of things to come) was his walk rate, which jumped from 10.2 to 12.5 percent.

Going into 2015, he looked to be a favorite to land back in the rotation after Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon were traded in the offseason, but it was announced in spring training that he’d be heading to the bullpen. At the time, the move seemed to suit him. He had served as the closer for Rice during his college days and his lack of secondary pitches wouldn’t be as much of a liability in short, one-inning stints of relief.

It hasn’t gone quite as planned, however.

While additional arm troubles didn’t help his cause, Cingrani’s effectiveness largely continued to be hindered by control that got even more erratic. His walk rate climbed even higher to 16.5 percent, despite seeing his strikeout rate creep closer to its 2013 level (25.2 K%). As a result, he posted a 5.67 ERA and 4.48 FIP in 33 1/3 innings and wound up spending a considerable portion of the season in Triple-A Louisville.

It’s been the same song and dance for the southpaw this season, and this time poor arm health can’t be used as an excuse for his performance. In 22 1/3 innings, he’s struck out 24 batters (24.2 K%), but has walked 16 (16.2 BB%). Of his 25 appearances, only 11 have gone without a base on balls being issued. Cingrani’s ERA of 4.43 isn’t exactly pretty, but ERA estimators are even more unkind to him, with his FIP and xFIP sitting above five, due mostly to the large amount of free passes he’s handing out.

Cingrani has been serving as the team’s closer recently, but his inconsistency could keep him from holding down the job for much longer, especially since Ross Ohlendorf has been settling into a groove in recent outings.

What makes it frustrating for everyone involved is that the talent for Cingrani hasn’t gone anywhere. He still strikes hitters out at an above-average clip, opponents are hitting just .222 against him and he’s holding opposing hitters to the lowest line-drive rate of his career (14.5 percent). He has even seen his average fastball velocity bump up to 93.3 mph — 1.5 mph higher than his career average.

But the lack of command lingers for the 26-year-old, and keeps him from reaching his full potential. Of pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, only the Royals’ Kris Medlen has a higher walk rate than Cingrani. (Of note: Blake Wood is third on this list.)

While Cingrani is only throwing his slider for a strike 50 percent of the time, it’s actually been a more effective pitch this year in terms of getting batters to swing at it outside the strike zone. His slider’s O-Swing% currently sits at 33.9 percent, which is the highest rate he’s ever managed.

The fastball is a different story. Hitters simply aren’t biting on it outside the strike zone like they used to, as he currently has a career low 19.7 O-Swing% on the pitch. A lot of that could be related to the simple fact that the word is out on Cingrani’s shoddy control: teams know he struggles to throw strikes and are more patient when facing him.

When trying to determine a cause for Cingrani’s ills, one interesting thing to look at is his release points over the last few years. His vertical release point has gotten lower every year, as he’s gradually started throwing the ball at more of a sidearm angle.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

It’s hard to tell just how much of an effect this has had, but there does seem to be some trend here. Cingrani’s control has gotten worse each year as his release point has gone down.

His horizontal release points have also been in flux every year.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (6)

It’s tough to make any definitive conclusions from this information, but it seems plausible that not being able to find consistent mechanics from year to year, due to injuries or other reasons, could contributing to his command problems.

Whatever the case may be, Cingrani is going to have to get a better feel of his pitches and the strike zone. He’s always been a pitcher who walks a good amount of hitters, but his walk rates have skyrocketed in the last three seasons. For most other pitchers, their other numbers would be horrendous, but Cingrani’s quality stuff and high strikeout rate keep his numbers from getting too inflated. If he can cut down on the free passes, the Reds could have a dominant reliever on their hands. Right now, though, inconsistency is keeping him from reaching his ceiling.

19 thoughts on “Control continuing to hold Tony Cingrani back

  1. It is pretty sad when a top 5 pick for any team can throw only 1 type of pitch. Doesn’t that imply a low baseball IQ after 20 plus years of throwing a baseball to just be able to throw a fastball? No slider, no curve, no changeup, no splitter. no knuckleball. I find it hard to believe that he even advanced out of A ball without having learned secondary offerings.

    • Not to be a jerk but the article addresses his slider use and implies it is effective, but your points are somewhat valid in that he probably would be effective if he new how to get his Fast ball over more or learned a 3rd pitch

      • His slider is a modified fastball. I think by calling it a slider we are being kind. It’s nice and all that he is improving it but seriously though shouldn’t this had been developed back when he was still in high school?

  2. I was unaware of the continuous changes to his mechanics. I’d be interested to know if pitchers commonly experience these seemingly large changes to delivery position, or if this is something that’s specifically affecting Cingrani and/or the Reds as a whole. I’m guessing the latter.

    I guess the silver lining is that at 26 years old, the Reds should be nearly done tinkering with his mechanics and he’ll hopefully commit to whatever optimizes his value in the near-future. If there’s any time to be experimenting, 2015-2017 is probably it.

  3. Cingrani is a prime example that command & control trumps a 94-95 heater. The Reds need a Terminator in the bullpen. But Cingrani has taken over the role Hoover had, the Walkinator.

  4. I remember seeing a feature a couple of years ago with Homer Bailey and Chris Welsh where Bailey was showing Welsh EXACTLY where his release point should be and what position his body should be in at that point, and describing the drills, core training and constant review he was doing to perfect that. I can’t help wondering if Cingrani or any of the other Reds pitchers do that or have even considered doing that, or if they just throw. Common sense suggests the former but results hint at the latter. The walk rates and home run rates (correlating with poor control in the strike zone) on this staff are off the charts. Very discouraging to watch. I’d be encouraged if I knew they were at least aware of some of the issues you describe Matt and working on correcting them.

  5. I’m guessing the suggested link between constantly changing mechanics and injury/ shoulder movement limitation is right on target. Recall that Price said a couple of years back that Cingrani’s shoulder mitigated against him continuing as a starter.

  6. Matt, do you know what sort of an effect 1/2-inch of difference in a vertical release point has? I don’t have the slightest clue.

    As you allude to, seems like overall his mechanics probably aren’t the same each time out.

    • That chart is in FEET. He’s dropped from 5.8ft (5’9.5″), to 5.4ft (5’4.8″). That’s a 5″ drop in release point. However, it may not be directly related to arm angle.

      Stride length will also lower the release point. If he is over-striding, the heel of the plant foot lands first, causing the backside to ‘lag’. This usually produces 3 results: 1) elevated pitches and 2) speeding up the arm action to ‘catch up’ which leads to 3) elbow/shoulder issues – b/c you’re no longer using your core to drive the ball

      • Heh. You are correct, good sir.

        Perhaps I should read the scale next time! 😉

      • Often leads to lower velocity too. The fact that his velocity is up makes me think that this isn’t an issue with his stride.

    • I don’t know the exact effect a 1/2″ difference in vertical release point has, but if I had to guess it may look a little like this:

      2013 fastball heat map: http://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=12555&position=P&ss=&se=&type=0&hand=all&count=all&blur=1&grid=10&view=pit&pitch=FA&season=2013

      2016 fastball heat map: http://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=12555&position=P&ss=&se=&type=0&hand=all&count=all&blur=1&grid=10&view=pit&pitch=FA&season=2016

      It looks like the red areas have moved from the upper 3rd of the strikezone to the thigh/knee, right in the hitting zone. His fastball was the 19th best fastball in 2013, best of any relief pitcher according to Fangraphs.It was below average in 2014 and 2015 and barely in the positive range this year.

      Anecdotally, I remember going to a game he started in 2014 and thinking he was trying too hard to keep the ball down when it seemed like in the past so much of his value came from elevating the fastball. Whether that was due to coaching instruction or an injury, I don’t know.

      Batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone less often (27% in 2013 and 23% this year) and swinging at pitches in the zone more often (61% in 2013 vs 68% in 2016). That leads me to believe his pitches in general are less deceptive; the balls in the zone are more hittable and the balls out of the zone aren’t very tempting.

    • It usually just indicates inconsistent mechanics, which could be why his control is all over the place. Even from game to game, Cingrani can’t seem to find one release point.

      For reference, here’s a look at Cingrani’s vertical release points by game this year.

      Compare that to, say, Clayton Kershaw, whose release point has been as consistent as can be.

  7. I don’t know where they go with Cingrani? His control isn’t good enough to trust him in late innings and he’s not a LOOGY either? Straily is a much better candidate for long man/spot starter. If the Reds ever get everyone healthy then not having room for Cingrani would be a good thing. He is what he is at this point.

    • Minor leagues. He has to work out his problems and rebuild confidence.

      Until he finds the strikezone and walks less than 4 per 9, he cannot help us

  8. Cingrani looks like a good case for Don Gullett. Gullett was known to have a near-photographic memory of a pitcher’s mechanics, which enabled him to help a pitcher adjust back to his mechanics when he was most effective.

    Gullett is too talented for the Reds not to use him for this type of project, and it probably wouldn’t hurt for Cingrani to hear a different voice now, anyway.

  9. He’s to young with too good of stuff to give up on but I have always thought his issues were above the shoulders.As for the rest of the pitchers here now or have been here none of them throw strikes and to me that is all coaching or a lack there off.While its off topic we have several guys that throw 95+ but have no clue where it is going and most don’t have secondary pitches they can throw over the plate either.Maybe none belong on a major league roster but 95+ on velocity is a place to start with in developing and coaching pitchers.

  10. Cingrani is from the Chicago south side and I think a trade to the White Sox might work out well for both teams.

  11. I’d sure like to see what would happen if Cingrani were used more regularly. If he’s healthy, have him throw in 3 out of 5 or 6 games regardless of score. Try it for a few weeks. I wonder how much of his trouble with control comes from his very inconsistent usage.

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