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:
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.