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The Strike Zone

Tony Cingrani thriving for Reds with spectacular high-wire act

Tony Cingrani started his 2014 season with seven shutout innings. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Tony Cingrani started his 2014 season with seven shutout innings. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Reds beat the Cardinals, 1-0, on Wednesday night thanks in large part to seven shoutout innings from 24-year-old left-handed sophomore Tony Cingrani. Firing up a steady diet of fastballs, Cingrani held St. Louis to a pair of singles and a pair of walk, striking out nine over his seven frames. In doing so, he dropped his ERA and WHIP across his first 19 major league starts to 2.59 and 1.01, respectively. But Cingrani also extended a rather surprising record that he's reached in an unusual way.

Since 1914, which is as far back as game logs go, Cingrani holds the record for most consecutive starts with five or fewer hits allowed, a record made all the more impressive by the fact that Cingrani's streak started with his very first major league start last April, when he held the Marlins to one run on five hits in five innings and struck out eight. The pitcher Cingrani beat in that game, eventual Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, gave up six hits that night, but now boasts an active streak of 16 consecutive games with five or fewer hits allowed, tying Kerry Wood in 2001 for second place behind Cingrani on that particular list.

Fourth place is Clayton Kershaw from 2009 with 15 such games, but things get kind of random after that. As one might suspect, given the tenets of defense independent pitching, which suggest that a pitcher has a very limited impact on what happens to the balls put in play again him, there is a fair amount of luck involved in such a streak. Cingrani's batting average on balls in play over those 19 starts, for example, is just .227. Such a figure has been proven to be unsustainable and sure to regress toward league average (.296 in the National League in 2013, and typically around .300). Consider, for example, the .237 BABIP Justin Verlander posted in his MVP-winning 2011 season. The next year, Verlander was nearly as good in every way, but that BABIP regressed to .275, and his career average is .289. Even starting pitchers with abnormally low career BABIPs tend to sit a good 40 points above Cingrani's mark as a starter. Among active pitchers with 1,000 or more innings pitched, the lowest career BABIP is Matt Cain's .268.

Defense-independent pitching focuses on the three true outcomes, those not impacted by fielders: Home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Thus far, Cingrani is nothing special with regard to the first two. His home run and walk rates have both been slightly higher than average over those 19 starts. He is, however, among the best strikeout pitchers in the game. Cingrani's 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his 19 starts rank second among pitchers with 15 or more starts since the start of 2013, behind only Yu Darvish's 11.9 K/9, and in sharp contrast to Darvish's famously diverse repertoire, Cingrani is doing it almost entirely with is fastball.

As impressive as Cingrani's strikeout and hit rates might be, things get downright weird when you look at his pitch selection. Four out of every five pitches Tony Cingrani throws are a four-seam fastball—81.6 percent in those 19 starts, to be exact, according to the Pitch f/x data at FanGraphs. According to that data, the only pitcher to throw 100 or more innings since 2007 and throw his four-seam fastball more often than Cingrani is A's reliever Sean Doolittle (86.9 percent four-seamers). Limit the list to starting pitchers, and the runner-up to Cingrani is former Oriole Daniel Cabrera (77.2 percent), who posted a 5.48 ERA from 2007 to 2009 and was finished as a major league pitcher at the age of 28. Cardinals sophomore Shelby Miller, who will make his 2014 debut on Friday, is third at 73.5 percent. The next ten pitchers are a parade of unfortunate career paths, with the possible exception of Twins closer Glen Perkins (who has a 5.06 career ERA as a starter), before you get to Clayton Kershaw way down at 66.3 percent.

The very clear message here is that a starting pitcher cannot survive on his fastball alone, but that's just what Cingrani did again Wednesday night. According to the pitch data from MLB.com's Gameday, 78 of the 92 pitches Cingrani threw Wednesday night (85 percent) were four-seam fastballs. Of the other 14 (11 sliders and three changeups), nine were taken for balls, and one was hit for a single, one of the two hits he allowed in the game.

Cingrani's fastball. which spiked to 96 mphWednesday night but sits around 93, benefits greatly from the deception in his delivery. He hides the ball well, strides slowly, then brings his arm around in a whip-like motion at a low-three-quarters angle so that the hitters pick up the ball late and it seems to jump on them.

[mlbvideo id="31782179" width="600" height="360" /]

Still, Cingrani knows he needs to improve the effectiveness of his secondary pitches. As a prospect, his changeup was well regarded, but the slider, which he throws in the low 80s, is the pitch he was working on the most this spring, with tutoring from injured left-handed reliever Sean Marshall. Cingrani did strikeout fellow lefty Matt Adams with a slider to end his start against the Cardinals, getting Adams swinging at a nice fadeaway to strand two runners (the 1:31 mark in the video above), but of the 11 sliders he threw on Wednesday (and while the data at BrooksBaseball.net differs slightly from Gameday with regard to the number of changeups Cingrani threw, it agrees on the sliders), nine were taken for balls.

Cingrani's continued success is crucial to the Reds' hopes this season. Coming into the season, the team was counting on Cingrani to replace departed free agent workhorse Bronson Arroyo, and the team isn't sure just how long they can count on ace Johnny Cueto, whose injuries gave Cingrani most of his rotation opportunities last year, to stay healthy. Cingrani had some injury woes of his own last year, landing on the disabled list in late August and later finishing the year on the shelf due to a strained lower back.  Those injuries prevented Cingrani from surpassing his 2012 innings total of 146, so there may be a workload concern for Cingrani later in the season, as well. Of course, that would be a problem the Reds would be happy to have, particularly if the concern is his availability for the playoffs. For now, the the big question concerning Cingrani is his ability to develop his secondary pitches in order to survive the coming correction in his hit rate. If he succeeds, he could be something special.
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