Climbing Cahill

2010 continues to be the year of the young gun with a bumper crop of fresh faces appearing to display their fine pitching talents. High on that list of hurlers who I find most intriguing is Oakland Athletics right-hander Trevor Cahill. Drafted out of High School by the A’s, in the second round of the 2006 draft, the 6’4″ 230 lb pitcher posted impressive minor league numbers, before being ranked as the 11th best prospect in the game by Baseball America at the dawn of the 2009 campaign. His minor league experience however was limited, as he only reached as high as a brief stint in AA ball, before opening 2009 as a member of the A’s starting rotation.

Cahill’s ’09 numbers were pedestrian at best but the A’s gave the kid a chance to fight through his difficulties and grow at the Major League level, which says a great deal about the organization’s confidence in him. In the first half of this season, Cahill has emerged as the pitcher that Oakland once put on par with their other, more highly touted 22-year-old pitcher, Brett Anderson. Anderson now resides on the DL, nursing an inflamed elbow and is looking to begin a rehab assignment in the coming week or two. While the Athletics as a team have floundered, currently finding themselves 10 games behind the first place Rangers, one bright spot amidst their recent woes has been Cahill.

Going into tonight’s start against the Orioles, Cahill is 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 52K/24BB in 75 innings. His xFIP of 4.03 suggests that this high a level of pitching from Cahill is not really sustainable though, as he carries a very low .235 BABIP. Cahill holds a rather high 53.3% GB rate however and gets to pitch home games in a pitcher’s paradise. Last year, Cahill posted a .273 BABIP against in his 32 starts. Oakland pitchers as a team carry a .289 BABIP, good for 7th best in baseball, so there is reason to believe that his current rate may not make that big a jump.

The most marked improvements that Cahill has seen are in the stats not contributing to his BABIP: K, BB and HR. Those numbers are now at 6.24/2.88 and .96/9 respectively, a big difference from rather uninspiring 4.53/3.63/1.36 rates he posted in ’09. While there’s nothing too eye-popping there now, that’s still a big improvement and I believe Cahill’s strikeout rate will get a bump in the second half. We’ve already seen that number climb over his last three performances, capped by his 10K/3BB/2H masterpiece on June 26 against the Pirates (not to get too nuts over shutting down the lowly Pirates), as he threw 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball.

I believe the reasons for the improvement are two-fold: Cahill has shown improved velocity – Cahill throws his average fastball at 90.4 MpH this season, up from 89.8 MpH last year – greater usage of his curveball – which he’s now throwing 11.9% of the time versus 2.7% in ’09. As he matures, Cahill is mixing his pitches better, with less reliance on his slider and change-up equaling improved effectiveness in all of his pitches aside from his change – his only “minus” pitch, which comes in at a -.5 RA value. The new-found confidence in Doctor Hook combined with the improved fastball and slider have kept hitters off-balance as they are swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone and taking more called strikes in the zone. For more details on those numbers, check out Dave Golebwieski’s 6/29 Stock Watch column, from Fangraphs and yes, he should certainly be owned in 12 team and maybe even 10 team mixed leagues. I own him in my keeper league and he’s been huge for me since I acquired him on June 3rd.

Interestingly enough, ZiPs rest of the season projections for Cahill are not kind. It’s calling for major regression, to the tune of 5.63K/3.71BB/1.13HR/9, as well as a .294 BABIP – leading to a 5-6 4.73 ERA/1.45 WHIP/50K line, from tonight until season’s end. I think this projection comes way short of what we’ll see from Cahill the rest of the way, as it seems to be missing the effect of his new confidence in his curve. I expect an ever greater K rate in the coming months and I believe his other rates should hold steady near their current rates. This looks very much like case of a young and talented pitcher, in a position to succeed, taking advantage of the opportunity and doing so by taking his game up to the next level. While Cahill alone may not help the A’s play meaningful baseball this October, a strong second half and a return of Brett Anderson, could make things interesting. Regardless, Cahill and a healthy Anderson could provide Oakland a nice one-two punch for years to come… or at least until they reach free agency.

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