Andrew Cashner was worth 1.9 fWAR and 4.6 rWAR over 28 starts for the Texas Rangers in 2018. How the hell he did this, despite striking out just 86 batters in 166.2 innings, and producing a groundball rate (48.6%) that was good-but-not-quite-great (among 58 qualified pitchers that rate ranked 15th, but expand the pool to include 134 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched and his ranking drops to 36th — Marcus Stroman ranks first among the first group, at 62.1%, and trails only Dallas Keruchel among the second), isn’t an easy question to answer.
Yet the Blue Jays may think they have the answer, and that it’s something Cashner can continue to do going forward — at least based on the latest rumour from Jon Morosi:
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) February 9, 2018
Are the Jays a contender? This will be a good oportunity to look at Bodog and take advantage of their odds.
There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, even for a team that could stand to add a better pitcher for longer term, to help offset the potential losses of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada next winter. If the club doesn’t feel great about the longer-term options that are out there — and based on some of the stuff in an MLBTR piece last night on Lance Lynn’s market (which points to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that suggests Jordan Zimmerman’s five year, $110 million deal with Washington as a comp; MLBTR thinks something like 4/60 is more likely) maybe it’s understandable if they do — there’s a good argument for opting instead for flexibility as far as 2019 goes, and looking to make an upside play on a one-year deal for a fifth starter right now.
But should Cashner be the one that they’re looking at? Is he actually not complete and utter trash?
A few years ago we’d have looked at his .266 BABIP, concluded that he probably had a lucky year, and figure that based the ugly strikeout totals there wasn’t a whole lot to like there. The Jays, however, have now twice extended Marco Estrada, suggesting that they can be convinced to buy in on a pitcher’s ability to limit quality contact, despite some other less-than-stellar peripherals. Cashner and Estrada are far from the same type of pitcher, but thinking that along the way he’s acquired that same kind of skill would seem to me to be the only reason to pay him any mind. So maybe that’s it.?
Back in October, Al Melchior of Fangraphs’ fantasy sub-site, Rotographs, wrote about Cashner’s 2017 season, and his “strange path to fantasy relevance.” I think he hits on some pretty important points in this regard.
“Even with the low BABIP, Cashner was only able to hold opponents to a slightly-lower-than-average .250 batting average, but the .365 slugging percentage he allowed was 61 points below the major league norm,” he explains. “As the rate of extra-base hits has increased steadily over the last three seasons, no pitcher has gotten more mileage out of limiting opponents to singles than Cashner did in 2017. In 16 of his 28 starts, Cashner allowed no more than one extra-base hit.”
With a 48.6 percent ground ball rate, Cashner was hardly a standout in that regard this season, but he was unmatched in his ability to limit hard contact on flyballs. Among pitchers who accumulated at least 40 innings on flyballs, Cashner’s 22.4 percent hard contact rate on flies was the lowest. The only other pitchers to register a rate under 30 percent were Marco Estrada (24.2 percent), Mike Foltynewicz (27.2 percent) and Chris Sale (29.1 percent). Estrada, Foltynewicz and Sale were all able to limit average flyball distances below the median of 320 feet (minimum 100 flyballs, per Baseball Savant), but none were close to Cashner’s average of 306 feet. Only Blach’s average distance of 305 feet was lower, but the lefty still allowed hard contact on flyballs at a 34.8 percent rate. That — and a 66.3 percent strand rate — prevented Blach from replicating Cashner’s run-prevention magic, as he was saddled with a 4.78 ERA.
Melchior points to a possible reason for this success, too. “Cashner relied on his sinker much more this season, increasing his usage from 25.3 percent in 2016 to 40.4 percent in 2017, while decreasing his four-seamer usage from 40.1 to 25.6 percent,” and notes that he “got more horizontal movement on both pitches and lower ISOs.”
On the other hand, he later rightly points out that “having this degree of success with such a high contact rate is rare.” Cashner is long way from a sure thing.
But do the Blue Jays need him to be one? It would be nice, but they have the luxury here of having four really good starters already locked into rotation jobs, plus Biagini, plus a handful of good starters slated for Buffalo (don’t sleep on Deck McGuire, even!) among whom one genuine big leaguer may be ready to emerge (if not now, soon). At worst, Cashner is a placeholder — if the Jays were to actually sign him, that is — and probably a brief one at that. It probably won’t take too long to determine whether his “run-prevention magic” was repeatable. At best? He was even better later in the season than early on — whatever was working not only kept working, but seemed to work better. From July 1st onward, following a rough June, he limited opponents to a .228/.305/.347 slash line over 92.1 innings. That amounted to a 3.02 ERA over that span, with just 79 hits (10 doubles and 10 home runs). His BABIP was .240, and he struck out just 50 batters (13.0%), so the fundamental questions about his performance and peripherals still remain, but if he can continue to be that guy? That could certainly be a hell of a thing.
I mean, I wouldn’t bet my life on it. I don’t think that I’d even bet money on it. But I’m at least willing to consider that it’s possible, and that all the things we’ve learned to believe are extreme red flags over the years are at least worth thinking about in another way. The brilliance of Marco Estrada over the last three seasons (save for that ugly stretch in the middle of 2017) has been a hell of a drug, hasn’t it?