Cashner defying expectations his own way

 (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Back in November of last year, we had a lot on our minds. So when the Rangers signed Andrew Cashner for about $10 million, it didn’t draw much attention. He was coming off a whirlwind year, being traded from San Diego to Miami and failing to pitch well enough to garner a long-term deal.

In hopes of recovering his value he came back to North Texas. It was here that he first showed his baseball promise, as a star with TCU. The hope was that this season would be enough for Cashner to figure out what it would take to become a pitcher who wouldn't settle next winter.

When you look at the Rangers pitchers on Baseball Reference, Cashner reigns supreme. He’s at 3.5, above now Yu Darvish (3.0), Cole Hamels (2.8), and bullpen unicorn Alex Claudio (2.4). The Conroe native has paid off to the point where if Texas does sneak into the playoffs, Cashner is the probable second starter in the rotation.

So how did we get here?

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It’s fair to say this is unexpected from Cashner. Previous to 2017, his best season was 2013. Pitching for the Padres he started 26 games, winning 10 with an ERA just north of 3. His strikeout to walk ratio hung out around 3, and his WHIP was 1.13 while he struck out 6.6 batters per 9 innings. That was good for 2.4 WAR, well below where he’s at through this incomplete campaign.

Compare that season to this one. Cashner has a higher ERA, he’s striking out fewer but walking about the same. His WHIP is higher, and everything else says he’s not as good. If you just go off average game score, Cashner clocks in at 51.4. 50 is average.

Yet he’s 17th among all qualified starters in WAR.

Despite Cashner's occasional struggles, the team’s success hasn’t suffered. He’s tied for first in team wins when he starts. He’s third in team losses, behind Darvish and Martin Perez. That second ranking is easily explainable; with Darvish gone Cashner gets the least run support per start. His margin of failure is a lot lower than Hamels, who gets almost four runs a start more than Cashner (3.8 to 7.5).

One of the demerits against Cashner this season has been his penchant for getting into sticky situations. Oftentimes you’ll look up from a meal or pleasant conversation to see bases full of opposing batters and Cashner sweating into his beard.

What’s impressive is how he’s reacted to those situations. In 235 plate appearances this season with runners on  Cashner is allowing a .528 OPS (on base plus slugging). In 120 PAs with runners in scoring position, that number drops to .489. Cashner’s had 101 PAs in what Baseball Ref considers high leverage situations; he’s kept opponents to a .540 OPS. When there are two outs on the board, hitters are limited to a .528. For the sake of reference, Ryan Rua is having a very bad year. He's hit .208 with 3 home runs. His OPS is .622, higher than Cashner's splits in any of these situations.

All of those are great indicators of how Cashner has made it work this year.

There’s a catch, however.

While those numbers are nice, luck has been involved with their accumulation.

Let’s look at those same situations, but the BABIP (batting average of balls in play) related to them. Keep in mind an average BABIP is around .300

Runners on: .212

RISP: .178

High leverage: .202

With two outs: .188

When we joke on Twitter about Cashner performing pagan rituals for double plays in the dugout or locker room, he really might be. (Author disclaimer: I’ve never seen a pagan altar or any other kind in Cashner’s locker). It’s fair to say that his success in part is due to the fielders behind him doing their job.

Even that you can give Cashner partial credit for; he’s been successful at generating ground balls this year. Those ground balls set up the fielders, who make the outs. The thing you can’t deny? Fielding has made Cashner better. the difference between Cashner’s 2017 ERA (3.44), FIP (4.58), and xFIP (5.31) are strong indicators that the results aren't necessarily all Cashner’s own effort.

Let’s circle back to batted balls for a moment. This year the split for batted ball types leans heavily on ground balls. Its 200 grounders to 104 fly balls and 101 line drives. That’s important, because Cashner’s been best on those first two types. Hitters against Cashner are OPSing .510 on groundballs, .668 on fly balls, and 1.245 on line drives. By leaning on ground balls while limiting the line drives, Cashner is more successful.

How Cashner has achieved that success is interesting also.

Looking at Cashner’s pitch selection, 2017 represents a year of drastic change for the former National League hurler. This season Cashner is using his four seamer only 24% of the time, the second-lowest of his career. He’s also all but abandoned the slider; Cashner’s used it less than 1% of the time (0.80% to be specific). In their place, a career high usage of the cutter (13.73%) and curveball (7.87%) have emerged. He's also returned to his sinker after reducing its use last year, going from 25% to 38% in 2017.

The cutter, curve, and sinker are Cashner’s three best pitches in that order for groundballs per balls in play. The pitch with the highest line drive per balls in play? His slider and four seamer, both of which see less use than ever.

Another big improvement using this expanded repertoire is how much better they’ve been at mitigating power numbers. Here’s the difference in slugging percentages from last year to this year among his primary pitches this season.

Curve: .870 in ’16, .321 in ’17

Sinker: .556 in ’16, .388 in ’17

Cutter: .167 in ’16, .422 in ‘17

Outside the cutter which is closer to league average, the drop represents a power drain to opposing hitters. Less power means, you guessed it, more weakly hit balls which generate more outs on the whole.

We talk a lot about Hamels’ reinvention in his older age. What isn’t getting attention is Cashner doing the same thing. He’s gone from a guy known for high strikeout numbers with the Cubs and Padres, to a pitcher focusing more on contact. He's following the Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole model to success.

You won’t find Cashner on any Cy Young watch lists, or on the lips of folks when they talk about the best pitchers in baseball. That doesn’t mean Cashner isn’t valuable. Mid-rotation starting pitchers get plenty of calls and fatter checks. Cashner seems to have understood what works for him at this stage of his baseball life, and he’s riding it to the best season of his career.

This November will be more pleasant than last for Cashner. The offers he receives should be more lucrative and plentiful, his options more open. None of that is possible without the choice he made this previous winter in signing with the team closest to where he broke out the first time. Now with the season nearing its end, he’s ready to put the cap on what has been a year beyond expectation.

 

For more on Andrew Cashner or inside jokes about The Ticket, follow him on Twitter at @TheSamuelHale.