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Andrew Casher, Closer or Starter: The Problems Facing Such a Conversion


Fans are getting excited about Andrew Cashner.  Oh, who are we kidding?  Fans are already excited about Cashner.  Every time one of his pitches lights up the radar guns at 100-plus mph or one of his off-speed pitches makes a hitter look silly, the fans go insane.  And for good reason.  The Padres have never had a pitcher with quite as electric stuff as Cashner.  At least not in recent memory.  While many still have their concerns (or grudges) with Cashner, he proved all spring long that he can flat-out pitch.  In his brief appearances in the regular season this year Cashner has continued to prove his dominance.  But can he make the transition from bullpen to starting rotation?

It’s not a foreign concept.  Other pitchers have been converted from relief to starting rotation.  In recent memory, C.J. Wilson converted with a great deal of success.  Alexi Ogando has done it without too much reduction in performance.  In fact, Ogando made the All-Star Game last year after being converted to starter.  Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes are two examples from the Yankees of relievers that were converted to starters.  They had differing results though.  Chamberlain had a great deal of success out of the pen, but as he was inserted into the rotation he struggled.  The Yankees put him back in the pen and he recovered much of the success he had previously flashed.  Hughes, on the other hand, came up as a starter, was sent to the pen, then returned to starting duties.  He has struggled to find consistency for obvious reasons.

Is the outcome guaranteed?  Absolutely not.  Are there clear pitfalls to converting a reliever to a starter?  Definitely.  Is the reward great when it works?  No doubt.  Andrew Cashner is about as polarizing a player as the Padres have had in recent memory.  It’s not anything he’s done or said.  It’s just simply the fact that he is who Josh Bynres got in return for Anthony Rizzo, one of the best first base prospects in the league.  No one is ever happy when a highly-touted position prospect is traded for a reliever.  But what if he succeeds as a starter?

According to The Roto-Saurus, a site that analyzes fantasy player value, relievers converting to starter are most successful when they have more pitches and rely on the fastball less, and when they can succeed against lefties and righties (the second one seems obvious, but with the number of specialists in the pen, it’s important to point this out).  With that in mind, let’s see what Cashner is working with.

According to Brooks Baseball, Cashner throws a fastball, sinker, slider, and a change-up.  There is a curveball listed as being thrown once, but that is probably a misclassified pitch.  This data is an average of Cashner’s big league appearances in his career.  He averages 97.17 mph on his fastball, 96.19 mph on his sinker, 85.62 mph on his slider, and 87.69 on his change up.  He has four solid pitches.  If he did in fact have the curveball as well, he’d be a complete package.  However, the four pitches he has should allow him to be successful in a starting role.

While we all marvel at Cashner’s fastball, the heater is not his out pitch.  Cashner relies on his off-speed stuff to get hitters out.  He uses the slider as one of his strikeout pitches, getting a ridiculously high 21.01% whiff rate with it.  His change-up is his other strikeout pitch, earning him a 16.90% whiff rate.  With the fastball, he gets just an 8.80% whiff rate.

Cashner, as a righty, has a natural advantage against right-handed hitters.  However, he actually has a higher strikeout rate against lefties.  The reason for this is his slider.  He will throw his slider to the left-handed batter’s back foot (picture Randy Johnson, except as a righty).  While Cashner has a higher strikeout rate against lefties, they find holes more when they make contact.  Cashner’s BAbip allowed to lefties is .313.  To righties, it is just .246.

So we understand Cashner’s peripheral numbers, he has the pitches in his arsenal to be a starter, and he has dominating stuff.  What’s holding him back?  Most people are genuinely concerned about his durability after the shoulder injury that kept him out of action for most of last season with the Cubs.  The injury did not require surgery, but many feel the strain of starting will aggravate that shoulder or lead to other problems.  With that in mind, the Padres would likely keep Cashner on a strict pitch-count if and when they let him assume a starting role.  However, the injury he suffered last year has not affected his velocity, his control, or his performance.

There are obvious concerns associated with converting a reliever to a starter.  Cashner would certainly see a drop in his velocity, and his strikeout rate would drop.  However, the potential reward if Cashner is successful could far outweigh the risk.  The fact is, Josh Byrnes and the Padres saw something in Cashner that they felt made him worth trading away their first baseman of the future.  He has the makings of an ace, something the Padres clearly lack right now.  It may take some adjustment, and their may be some growing pains, but moving Cashner to the rotation next year as the Padres promised him they would do, seems well worth the risk.

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