Chances are that a month ago, while you were preparing for your draft, you highlighted, circled and starred Andrew Cashner's name on your cheat sheet. To make sure you were one of the many infected with Cashneritis, complete the following quiz.
• Are you alive?
• Do you like pitchers who throw hard?
Yes and yes? Congratulations, that means you were all over Cashner in your draft. The 27-year-old was a popular breakout pick for three primary reasons. After the first few years of his career spent with the Cubs were riddled with injuries, Cashner stayed healthy in 2013, making 26 starts. He posted a 3.09 ERA, 3.35 FIP, a 6.7-percent walk rate and 8.1-percent HR/FB ratio. Seven other pitchers in the majors matched or bettered Cashner in walk rate and HR/FB ratio. While there were a couple surprises on there who no one would consider among the game's elite (hello, Bartolo Colon and Eric Stults), the others were all top-tier performers: Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright. That's good company, and Cashner earned his way into that class last year.
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The second was his ability to get weak contact with consistency. Cashner had a line-drive rate of 18.8 percent and a ground-ball rate of 52.5 percent last year. He may not have fanned batters at a high rate, but he didn't walk anyone, didn't give up homers, and forced weak contact with extreme efficiency. That's just about as effective a formula as striking out double-digit batters per nine innings.
The final piece of the puzzle was Cashner's velocity, and what it suggested about his strikeout potential in the future. His average fastball in 2013 was 94.5 mph. Despite that, he fanned fewer than seven batters per nine innings. That owed largely to secondary offerings that did not induce very many empty swings. Cashner's O-swing percentage, the rate at which batters swung at pitches out of the strike zone, was just 28.6 percent last year. Off-speed pitchers are generally the ones that get hitters to go fishing, and Cashner simply didn't do that enough last season. His swinging-strike rate on sliders was 13.6 percent and on changeups was 9.8 percent, neither of which are very good. However, his velocity indicated that he'd be able to induce weak contact, and hard throwers, as a matter of course, strike out more batters than soft tossers.
Cashner has delivered on all the promise he showed last year and rewarded the fantasy community for having such faith in him this draft season. In three starts covering 21 innings, he has allowed three runs and 10 hits while striking out 22 and walking seven. He's the owner of the best single pitching performance of the season, as well, throwing a one-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts against the Tigers. We're not yet one month into the season, but Cashner appears well on his way to a true breakout campaign. So good work, fantasy gamer, you nailed this one.
Unfortunately, it appears we were all right for the wrong reasons. If I told the version of you that is three weeks younger than your current self that Cashner's fastball velocity would be down a full mile per hour in his first three starts, would you still have been as excited about him as you were? Well, that's exactly where it is, sitting at 93.5 mph compared with last year's 94.5 mph. Where is he making gains, then, you ask? With his slider and changeup, the very pitches he needed to perfect to realize his potential as a strikeout artist.
Cashner has largely scrapped his changeup, throwing it just 6.2 percent of the time in his first three starts this year. It's much more effective this year, though, resulting in whiffs 18.5 percent of the time, up from 9.8 percent last year. That's due in large part to increased horizontal movement on the pitch that has it diving further away from left-handed hitters by nearly two more inches than it did in 2013.
He has thrown his slider on 21.4 percent of his offerings, up 50 percent from last year. Its average speed up to 83.5 mph from 83.1 mph, but interestingly enough, it hasn't yet had as much horizontal or vertical movement as it did last year. Even so, his swinging-strike rate on the pitch is up to 14.8 percent from 13.6 percent, and hitters are offering at it when it's out of the strike zone 38.5 percent of the time, a huge increase from last year's 29.7 percent.
We can't be certain yet with just 21 innings to work with, and his movement on the pitch could easily outpace what it was last year, but thus far there's no denying that his slider has been much more effective this season that it was in 2013. He'll need to get a few more starts under his belt before we can determine if that owes to the sample size, or if the offering has truly improved.
The jury is still out as to whether Cashner is in the midst of a progression to being a front-of-the-rotation starter, or if he's just experiencing in the middle of an anomalous streak of very strong starts. If it is to be the former, his slider and changeup will have to prove to be the plus pitches they have been in April.