Is there a more calamitous profession in sports than being listed as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in 2016? Have more pitching careers come to a crashing end anywhere else this year? If everyone were healthy, here’s a sample rotation we could have reasonably seen coming out of spring training:
All five of those guys started the season on the disabled list. Here’s the actual first five pitchers to start a game for the Reds this season:
Now, on September 7th, here are the most recent five starting pitchers for the Reds, going backwards from last night.
Okay. By my count, that’s three different rotation groups, and out of 12 total names, only three pop up twice. One is Stephenson, who started just one more game after the Reds’ first series of the year before spending virtually the entire season at AAA. He’s only just now re-emerging with the most recent September call-ups. Another is Desclafani, who didn’t make his first appearance until June 21st.
The third is Brandon Finnegan, a 23-year old left-hander most scouts said was destined for a late-inning relief role who is currently leading the team in innings pitched.
How did we get here? The skepticism about Finnegan’s potential as a starter didn’t come without reason. That’s the kind of report you’ll get when you really only throw two pitches and have never thrown more than 105.1 innings in a season as a professional. In 2015, Finnegan used his sinker 72% of the time, his slider 21% of the time, and his change-up 7% of the time, according to Brooks Baseball. Such a mix does not a starter make.
The reason the Reds made the former first round pick a key piece in the Johnny Cueto trade last July, however, is that they believed he still had enough room in his development to become a starting pitcher. So far in 2016, Finnegan has given reason to back that belief up, compiling a 4.17 ERA (101 ERA+) in 156.2 IP, with 135 hits allowed and 76 walks to go with 133 strikeouts.
When looking at what the lefty has changed this year, you can start by looking at how he uses his off-speed offering. Finnegan has upped his change-up usage to 11% in 2016. That doesn’t sound like a big jump, but the stride isn’t just in how often he’s using it, but in what he’s doing with it. Opponents are putting it in play at a smaller rate than they are any of his other pitches, and when they do, they’re hitting it on the ground.
Perhaps the biggest change in Finnegan’s repertoire, you’ll note from above, is the addition of a four-seam fastball. Before this season, Finnegan had thrown exactly four four-seam fastballs in the major leagues - all of them in 2014. Now, he goes to it about 43% of the time he uses his fastball, and has seen it consistently sat around half a mile per hour faster than the sinker. The pitch has given Finnegan the ability to challenge more hitters up in the zone, as well as something hard that he can throw to the opposite side of the plate that has less risk of running back over the middle.
Finnegan’s season, of course, has not come without its sour notes. The two homers he gave up last night put his total at 29 for the season, the most of any pitcher in the National League. He also has issued 4.3 walks per nine innings, and has walked at least four batters in a game nine times in 28 starts. Those look rough, but again: he’s a 23 year old, with 84.1 career innings in the minors, learning half of his repertoire on the fly.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much less dicey when you get into his splits. He has a .591 OPS allowed against lefties but a .796 OPS allowed to right-handers. He’s also allowing an .849 OPS to opponents the third time through the order, compared with just a .700 OPS the first two times through.
These, however, are forgivable transgressions in 2016. This season is about consistently improving, and Finnegan has done just that. In his last eight starts, Finnegan has a 2.42 ERA with 3.7 walks per nine and 9.68 strikeouts per nine. Whether he’s coming off of an eight run outing against Washington or a complete game against Los Angeles, he’s always been there to make his next start; to press forward in a season that has been crucial to deciding Finnegan’s future, and a season that so many pitchers have simply been unable to take the mound each and every week.
From this point forward, if and when Finnegan gets shut down, it will most likely be because of an innings count decided upon by the organization, and not because of ineffectiveness or injury. That’s a big deal in 2016. And if he’s still in this position next year, there won’t be any reason to discount it because of the injuries around him. It could instead mean he’s the mid-rotation starter the Reds believed they were acquiring 13 months ago.
It’s September, and he is still standing. And for that, we should all raise a glass to Brandon Finnegan: The Pitcher Who Lived.