Kill the Win

Can Brandon Finnegan stick in the starting rotation?

People around baseball have been asking the same question since Brandon Finnegan was drafted by the Kansas City Royals with the 17th overall pick in the 2014 draft: can he be a major-league starter in the long run?

No one has ever doubted his talent. But his smaller frame, seemingly max-effort delivery, and bouts of wildness made many wonder if he was destined for a career as a reliever at the back-end of a bullpen. The success he had in a relief role during his short time with the Royals only cemented that mindset for some scouts. When the Reds traded for the left-hander a year ago, however, they made the smart decision to use Finnegan as a starter to see if he could maximize his potential in a role where he could provide a higher value.

Finnegan ended the 2015 season in the Reds’ rotation and has been there for the entirety of 2016. He has now made a total of 25 starts in the major leagues spanning 138 1/3 innings, which doesn’t even amount to a full season. He’s still only 23 years old and has a long career in front of him.

Have we gotten any inclination of an answer to the opening question, though?

This season, his first full campaign as a major league starter, Finnegan has been exactly what you’d expect him to be: inconsistent. In 117 1/3 innings, he has posted a mediocre-at-best 4.68 ERA. The peripherals tell a worse story, with his FIP sitting at 5.72, his xFIP at 5.17, and his SIERA at 5.26. Here are his ranks in those three categories among 93 qualified starters:

FIP: 93rd

xFIP: 92nd

SIERA: 90th

The reason for these dismal numbers is pretty simple: Finnegan hasn’t struck out many hitters (16.9 K%), has walked a lot of hitters (11.6 BB%), and has given up a ton of home runs (1.69 HR/9). While his 16.5% HR/FB rate will normalize in the long run, the low strikeout and high walk totals are legitimate reasons for concern.  Only 11 qualified starters have a worse strikeout rate than Finnegan, while only Francisco Liriano has a higher walk rate. There aren’t many pitchers who can have success with that combination. The southpaw has only picked up five or more strikeouts in a game four times and has had only two starts this season in which he did not walk a batter, the last coming on May 18.

From a pitch-by-pitch standpoint, the results haven’t been there, either, especially when compared to his performance in past seasons and earlier this year. None of his pitches are getting a high whiff rate and batters aren’t being fooled, swinging at few balls outside the strike zone on every pitch except his changeup. His ground-ball percentage is also way down on every pitch but the change, which hasn’t boded well with half of his starts coming in Great American Ball Park (13 of the 22 home runs he’s given up this year have been at home).

As Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about after Finnegan’s latest start — a six inning, shutout effort against the Padres — the changeup is key for the young hurler. Although he hasn’t used it a ton before this year, it’s been his best pitch throughout his career, but he started to lose confidence in the pitch after utilizing it to great success in April. In his most recent start, Finnegan regained a feel for the change thanks to a different grip, and he said it made a huge difference:

“I threw a change-up well. That was the key to everything,” Finnegan said. “I was just throwing the fastball and slider the last few games, and it’s not too hard to hit that. It’s a starter just throwing two pitches.”

If he can build on the momentum he gained in his last start with the changeup, it should only improve the effectiveness his other pitches and yield better overall results.

It stands to reason that Finnegan will continue to improve as time goes on. Again, he’s only 23. His career at Texas Christian University started out in a similar way. In his freshman season, he walked over four batters per nine innings and struck out just over eight. The walks went down every year while the strikeouts increased, as he finished his junior season with 11.4 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. College baseball isn’t the same as the big leagues, of course, but this example shows how pitchers can improve over time; it takes time to adjust to a new, better level of competition.

The Reds are in a situation where they can afford Finnegan plenty of leeway as he goes through the ups and downs of learning to be a starting pitcher in the majors. But eventually, a decision will have to be made with him, especially with all the pitching talent in the organization. It’s easy to wonder if he’ll even get a chance to start next year. Barring injury, we know Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani will anchor the rotation. You can probably count on Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson being there, too. The team could also revisit using Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as starters. Although he’ll likely head back to the bullpen at some point, Dan Straily could also be in the mix. At the beginning of the season, Finnegan may be the No. 5 guy, but top prospects like Amir Garrett will start knocking on the door at some point. By 2018, even more competition could enter the fold; Rookie Davis, Nick Travieso, Keury Mella, Tyler Mahle, and Sal Romano may all be close to big-league ready by that point.

Finnegan certainly has some time to establish himself as a major-league starter, but with all the other young pitchers competing with him, he doesn’t have forever. He has shown glimpses of his potential this year. If he can find a more consistent feel for his pitches, particularly his wicked changeup, and show a better command the strike zone, he could stick.

36 thoughts on “Can Brandon Finnegan stick in the starting rotation?

  1. A 2017 pitching staff that consists of Bailey, DeSclafani, Reed, Stephenson, Iglesias, Lorenzen, Lamb, Finnegan, Straily, Cingrani and possibly Amir Garrett could be potentially really good.

    The key will be getting these young pitchers ready and figuring out who is suited for the starting rotation and who should be in the bullpen.

    • That’s why I truly believe the Reds have a chance to contend as early as next season. A rotation of Disco, Bailey, Reed, Stephenson, Iglesias/Garrett with Lorenzen closing, Lamb, Finnegan, Straily, Cingrani and Iglesias (if he can’t start) in the bullpen would be solid, and perhaps even elite, depending on how some of these young pitchers develop. Add to that an infield of Votto, Peraza, Cozart/Dilson Herrera, and Suárez and an outfield of Winker, Hamilton, Duvall, the return of Mesoraco behind the plate, and a bench consisting of Schebler and Phillips, and this team could have a good offense as well.

      • Personally, I think they should keep Iglesias in the role he’s in right now. Go 2-3 innings per appearance, and throw somewhere in the 100-120 IP a year range. He can be very effective and not wear out his shoulder. He’d be wasted in a one inning closer role, and would impact games much more shutting down teams in innings 6-8 in close games.

        • Unfortunately, the Reds will probably put him in the closer role. Jeff Brantley was just talking about this today on the radio. It’s that mentality that your best reliever must be your closer and pitch the 9th inning. The team that will have a tremendous competitive advantage is the team that decides that the best bullpen arm should pitch in the highest leverage portion of the game and if possible should go more than 1 inning. The trick is to pay your bullpen pitchers accordingly and get the players and agents out of paying guys based on what inning(s) they pitch.

        • Just to be clear, I’m agreeing with everything you said above. I’m often a contrarian when I reply to a comment and realize I didn’t validate your point prior to stating my own opinion on the matter.

        • If Iglesias pitches 120-150 innings a year, I could see him being valuable in the role he’s in now, but at any less than 120, I think his talent is being wasted.

      • I like Bailey, DeSclafani, and Finnegan in the rotation, w/Straily (at least for now, and probably to start next year out),Reed back down (like they did w/Lamb struggling this year) for the rest of this year, and do a re-eval on both of them next Spring. I’d giver Adleman more starts to see what he has, and maybe expand to a six man rotation to finsh out the year using Stephenson or Sampson in the sixth spot. A bullpen w/Cingrani closing with Lorenzen, Iglesias, Josh Smith, Blake Wood, Jumbo, and a veteran lefty would be great to me as the bullpen has come far as this season has progressed. The infield of Votto, Peraza/Phillips, Cozart/Herrera, and Suarez could be formidable, and having Schebler/Winkler, Hamilton, and Duvall in the outfield would be good as well. Dejesus is what he is, but he can play4-5 positions, so he’s a useful bench player. I’m pretty close to giving up on Mesoraco. I know he’s got good offensive skills when healthy, but he’s missed way too much time the last three years to give him much leeway to me. He might be better trade bait if he plays ok to start next year, and while the combo of Barnhart/Cabrera doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of pitchers around the league Barnhart has shown some improvement offensively this year, his defense is still good, despite some issues at times this year, and Cabrera is a typical backup catcher who won’t wow, but won’t fail too badly either, and this offense could be good enough so that the catcher spot doesn’t have to be that good offensively. Personally I don’t like innings limits for young starters in most situations, unless the starter has a prior history of arm troubles. I’m not saying to waste starters arms like Billy Martin did w/the A’s in the early 80s, but they need to be tested to see how much adversity they can handle, as the best starters are experts in dealing with those situations. Lorenzen might be a good closer, but he Iglesias, and Smith all can eat up tons of bullpen innings with effectiveness, and on the nights when the starter goes deep into a game Wood, Jumbo, and Cingrani can come in and get a few outs to finish it off. I believe this team can be in the playoff race next year, especially w/healthy starters, and more contributions offensively from the lineup. Hamilton and Peraza could terrorize pitchers w/base stealing, and if Suarez returns to being a .300ish hitter that would really set the table for Votto ,Duvall, and the rest of this offense.

        • Suárez never will be, and doesn’t need to be, a .300ish hitter. If he can hit .260-.270 with a .330-.340 OBP and the power he has shown this season, that is plenty enough to be a very good everyday player. Look at his stats without the month of May included, and we see more of what kind of player he really is. He’s a .258 hitter this season excluding May, with a .333 OBP. Combine that with the power, like I said, and he’s actually been much better than we think he has been.

  2. Unless the Reds get antsy with Garrett or Stephenson, I bet Finnegan will get a lot more chances to prove his worth in the starter’s role.

    • I think he at least gets one more offseason as a starter and he’ll start 2017 in the rotation. If the K’s don’t increase and the BB’s decrease in that role, then he’ll likely be reduced to a one inning high leverage bullpen guy.

    • Stephenson seems to be not progressing. He lacks command and has gone back and forth with the grip on his changeup and much was made about going back to his old grip for his third pitch- a splitter/changeup which the Reds banned early in his career for fear of arm injury. Interestingly, Homer throws a split and many people feel splitters increase the risk of arm injuries . Any updates on why Stephenson is struggling with command?

  3. The Reds are probably thinking about an innings limit for Finnegan. He threw 106 innings last year between the majors and minors. He’s already at 117 innings this year. He’s only pitching 5-6 innings per game. If the Reds have a goal for him of 130 IP, for example, that’s just 4-5 more starts – fewer if they want to use him in the bullpen in September. My guess is they shut him down as a starter when rosters expand in September. So his time to prove his worth as a starter, at least this year, is running out.

    • Yeah, I should have specified. I more meant that he’ll likely get a chance next year. Unless Stephenson turns things around, I don’t see him on the big club to start next year. And maybe Garrett will be in the rotation out of ST, but throw in an injury to someone and Finnegan is right back in the mix.

    • To me it is obvious he should be a reliever the remainder of the year, are they actually rebuilding with the set of cast offs of 30 somethings last night? They need another lefty in the bullpen anyway, he has not progressed as a starter, limits are a concern, and he seemed to do all right in high leverage situations I recall from the 2014 playoffs. I would try a few others out the remainder of the year like Adleman and Sampson if they want Stephenson to get his act together before burning more of his service clock. Feeling Reed might need to be sent out for same reason, not the worst thing in the world to have 23 years old spend an entire season at AAA before getting roughed up in the big leagues.

      • They might be waiting to put Finnegan in the bullpen for when they want to call the next one up. Maybe soon.

        There’s another side to the innings limits issue. While you don’t want to jump Finnegan up that much from 2015, you do want to build his innings up so he can throw 180+ innings in 2017. That obviously assumes he would be a starter in 2017, but that’s not something you can rule out right now even if it’s unlikely.

        Tricky line to walk, especially with 23 year old pitchers.

  4. One more data set is xFIP by month:

    April: 4.98
    May: 5.14
    June: 5.32
    July: 5.16

    Months are arbitrary time periods, so it’s important not to read too much into this. But you do get the sense that Finnegan hasn’t been improving as the year has gone on.

    He’s just 23, so plenty of time to get better. See Cueto etc. But given how crowded the competition will be next spring for one of the five starting spots, this may be his one chance to show something.

  5. I’ve been a little disappointed in Finnegan this year. Like you said, his lack of strikeouts is really hurting him.

    And he really gives up A LOT of hard contact. I went to the game he pitched against the D-backs last Sunday, and it was rocket after rocket. Gave up 6 runs in 5 innings, including 3 home runs. And a lot of his outs were hit well but right at people. I turned to my brother and remarked, “he’s not fooling anybody right now”.

    I am shifting over to the camp that sees his future as a high-leverage reliever. Which is ok I guess. If we get one solid starter (Reed) and 2 good lefties for the pen (Finnegan, Lamb), then that’s a good return on the Cueto trade.

    • Why is Cody Reed a solid starter at this point?, outside of a decent first start and a solid one against a terrible Braves team, he has been awful.
      Finnegan’s had more overall success outside of the K’s. I think they both could develop into something promising but at this point guys like Stephenson, Travesio, Garrett, Tyler Mahle have about the same chance

      • Reed’s not a solid starter at this point. That said, he’s only had a handful of starts compared to Finnegan, so you can’t draw too much of a conclusion on him just yet. The strikeouts, combined with the minor league success, prove the talent is there. He just needs to learn how to pitch to major league hitters, and I think he’ll be fine.

        But yes, Reed is not a sure thing at this point. Most rookie pitchers are not.

  6. I think its important to stockpile younger cheaper quality arms in the bullpen from both sides to be able to win consistently. It doesn’t make sense to overpay for veterans or free agents who will need a multiyear deal and Jocketty has a poor track record of putting together a bullpen and overpaying for guys( Uh-oh Cordero) or signing expensive guys to multiyear deals who are injured(Sean Marshall/Broxton/Ryan Madsen/ or filling the pen with guys who just cant pitch….Kevin Gregg/Burke Badenhop/Jason Marquis/Simon part 2/Jumbo Diaz/JJ Hoover.) While its one thing to underutilize your best arm- its another thing to have a deep, strong bullpen. The nucleus of Lorenzen/ Iglesias/ Finnegan and Cingrani could grow into a potentially outstanding group. John Lamb could be the swing guy/long guy/spot starter.

    • Cordero gets a lot of crap, but he had a save % that was nearly identical to Chapman’s in both their times in a Reds uniform.

      • Cordero was adequate…but 4 years 48 million for a closer in 2010 was absurd. It’s an example of dusty Baker.jockettyand probably price not understanding how to allocate resources.talent.budget to a 25 man roster….Chapman was misused in a different way…..bottom line….need to reboot bullpen blueprint and young guns pitching more innings in flexible way for situational baseball is the starting point. Don’t allow “roles” and ego to develop going forward.

        • I agree about the contract. But Jocketty wasn’t hired even as a counselor until January 2008. Cordero signed in Nov. 2007. Price wasn’t hired until Oct. 2009 when the Reds fired Baker’s pitching coach. Baker had been hired in Oct. 2007, so presumably he had some say in the Cordero deal. We know Baker loved established closers more than anything, even more than fast leadoff men.

        • Like it or hate it, it is the Free Agent we have ever lured to Cincy and we had to overpay for him.

          At the time our pitching was not good

  7. “At the beginning of the season, Finnegan may be the No. 5 guy, but top prospects like Amir Garrett will start knocking on the door at some point. By 2018, even more competition could enter the fold; Rookie Davis, Nick Travieso, Keury Mella, Tyler Mahle, and Sal Romano may all be close to big-league ready by that point.”

    When you put it like this, it’s difficult not to feel optimistic about the Reds going forward. It’s reasonable to expect the organization to put together an envious rotation, solid bullpen, and still have room to make trades to fill other holes especially when you consider the abundance of middle infielders.

    I’m confident that Brandon Finnegan improves next year. I can also see Suarez improving significantly defensively and offensively, and becoming a nice trade piece as Senzel makes his way up.

  8. I think next year at the break, we could be saying goodbye to Homer Bailey even if the Reds are competitive.

    We may have that much pitching to play with.

    I would say that in small samples, Stephenson has been better than Reed, but both are puppies. Robert needs to control the zone. Reed, just like Finnegan needs a 3rd pitch change up.

    Finnegan has been better than Reed this year.

    I am not sure that Straily will give up his starters spot without a fight. I get that there are a bunch of guys with better CV’s than Dan, but he is achieving results at the Major League Level.

    The nice thing about that is that we do not have to rush any of our prospects. we can wait until they are beating the door down like Schebler is now, versus early this year.

    And I am OK with guys going up and down their first year while they are figuring it out. I would send Reed down for the month of August and tell him to throw 20 % change ups

    I hate the thought of Rasial limited to 65-70 innings. Reminds me of our last greatest pitcher on the staff who had built in limits

    • I disagree with a few things here. First and foremost, for the majority of the season, Finnegan has been as bad as Reed has been but with better luck. Finnegan has a .254 BABIP. That’ll undoubtedly rise. Reed has a .367 BABIP, and that’ll surely fall. Finnegan also has a 5.16 xFIP, Reed has a 3.85 xFIP. Finnegan a 5.26 SIERA, Reed a 3.95 SIERA. Reed strikes out 3 more batters per nine than Finnegan (9.34 to 6.60) and walks exactly one batter less than Finnegan per nine (3.53 to 4.53). Cody Reed also has an incredibly low left on base percentage (57.0%) which will rise to something more normal. Further, Cody Reed’s best pitch thus far, per Fangraphs pitch value, has been his change up. Cody Reed’s problem has been that his fastball hasn’t be effective (he tends to miss in the zone with it) and his slider, which was supposed to be a legendary pitch (Baseball America wrote an entire article on Reed’s slider alone), has been a below average pitch, also because he’s been missing with it in the zone.

      Stephenson has only thrown 12 innings and therefore should never be judged for those, but his FIP, xFIP, SIERA are all astronomically high, his BABIP is crazy low, and we can glean nothing of value from those 12 innings compared to the still ridiculously small sample of Reed’s 35 innings. Cody Reed will be having better outings soon, because a lot of his problems are being unlucky. If it’s a choice between Reed or Finnegan right now, I’m choosing Reed, both based on immediate projections, and future ones.

      • Thanks John for your well prepared and thought out response. I love this site for all the great contributions of so many folks like yourself. I cannot argue your facts or the way that you present them.

        I am going to go old school (as much as I dislike when Dusty or Bryan Price does this) but to date I am going by my eyes and “feelings, nothing more than feelings” of who looks like they compete to me, and who has great skills or stuff and maybe not showing they belong as of yet.

        I was hard on Suarez a few weeks ago for his missing a few basic plays. The play he made last night behind 3rd showed me why he belongs, and there were others on this board who I have seen be very supportive of Suarez.

        all that said, I like the way Finnegan competes. I know it is an intangible. I think the same thing about Lorenzen. They have a little Straly in them, and I am all in favor of that

        • Well John, after watching those 5 innings, I FEEL sure that Cody Reed should go down for the month of August and get himself together.

          Not sure what the stats say, but after this performance, they are not the same numbers that your started the day with.

          I like Reed, he just needs to go down and get it together.

          Finnegan may have had days like this one, but he seems to keep us in the games most of the time. Yes, he is not throwing shutouts, but the team is more competitive when he pitches in 2016 so far than when Reed is on the hill

    • I agree w/Bailey possibly going away next year, especially if he’s pitching well at the break. The Reds may actually have TOO many pitching prospects that could be ready next year, but then they should load up the bullpen with some of those arms. To me Dan’s earned a job in the rotation with a solid, unexpected year, and this could help the youngsters to grow even more with more competition. I like the idea of Iglesias pitching 80-120 innings in the pen, and I think Cingrani has also earned the opportunity next year to start out as the closer. I like sending Reed back down for work. He’s definitely got skills, but needs more seasoning. I agree with what you posted here. It should be an exciting year next year, and maybe even for the rest of this year.

  9. Finnegan is a noticeably different pitcher when using his changeup effectively. The batters don’t look comfortable, he doesn’t get hit very hard and he looks more effective for longer. If that becomes a pitch he can use every start, he’s a worthwhile guy to have at the back end of a rotation. However, he’s been successful in a bullpen before, and as this season has taught us, there’s no such thing as too many bullpen arms.

    Something I’m starting to believe is that Robert Stephenson might be ticketed to the pen as well. He’s young, but his control issues have never improved (minus the improvement from his first 4 starts in AA at the end of 2013 to his full season at AA in 2014). In fact, they’ve gotten worse or stabilized at bad his entire career. Something else he’s done is pulled back on his velocity, with most reports saying he sits in the 91-94 range. That’s a far cry from when he was rearing back and flirting with triple digits in Dayton. So he’s learned to harness the velocity, and yet he hasn’t improved his walk rate. And while his walk rate has stabilized at high, his K rate has dropped. Robert Stephenson will be 24 at the start of next season, definitely not old, but no longer really a young prospect. If his BB/9 sits near 5, and his K/9 remains under 8, his effectiveness as a starter must be questioned. If sending him to the bullpen allows him to reach back for 97-100, with the hammer breaking ball he was tossing out there earlier in his prospect life, that sounds like a mighty effective high-stakes reliever. Unless, of course, he can’t throw strikes still. But missing in the zone at 99 is better than missing in the zone at 93.

    ALL THAT SAID, please do not give up on him as a starter yet. If he can cut back walks, he could be an innings eater. But I don’t think we can expect the frontline starter we were hoping for to materialize.

  10. Good question about Finnegan but it really always comes down to performance and he hasn’t improved much.Others should get some chances and the best start.Finnegan has a job on this team for sure.Our pitching is very talented and we have lots of depth which is why we will continue to get better as a team.Look out 2018 and beyond.

  11. At 23 Finnegan is still cutting his teeth, along with Reed and Lamb at this level. Time will tell. Garret will be 25 come next year and has been consistently good throughout the minors. Pardon me, really good. He deserves a shot at the rotation next year. Still think Lorenzen can be a starter. Strong, athletic, variety of pitches with electric stuff at times. Needs polish, but again, he’s still a little raw and needs time to develop.

  12. The Answer is No. Finnegan’s pitch efficiency is very bad. His location is off. Brantley has been ranting now for about 2 months on the way Finnegan throws too many pitches up and away to RH hitters. Brantley says that shows Finnegan is continually overthrowing too many of his pitches. And there is no improvement or change with this.
    Trade him in a rich package for a hitter.

    • If Brantley can see that from the booth, where is the coaching staff on that, I wonder? I know, for all we know they are telling him the same thing and it’s flying out the window come game time. Probably part of that smoothing out the edges of youth and “learning how to pitch instead of throw” process.

  13. Finnegan after a couple more starts should go to the Pen as he is getting too many innings. They could ruin a great young player.

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