With less than a week until pitchers and catchers report the Blue Jays front office still have not found a fifth starter. However, Jon Morosi has reported that the Blue Jays are “showing continued interest in Andrew Cashner...”. Immediately there was recoil on twitter from fans pointing to Cashner’s absurdly low strike outs and that his 4.61 FIP and 5.30 xFIP showed that his sparkly 3.40 ERA was just an illusion. But what if it wasn’t?
It is rare to have a such a low ERA and low strikeout rate, it has happened only 10 times since 1980 that a pitcher has thrown over 150 innings with a K/9 under 5 and and ERA under 3.50. The last person to do it before Cashner was Joel Pineiro in 2009. An interesting note is that 9 out of 10 were between 2002 and 2009.
Of the pitchers on the list Cashner stands out to be different in that he’s a fireballer with a history of getting strikeouts. For the rest of the list, getting low strikeout numbers was normal, but the results would fluctuate dramatically from year to year. Statcast has his average pitch speed at 93.44 mph (above the league average of 92.43 mph) and that was approximately what it was the previous year when he had 7.64 K/9, so where the the strikeouts go?
Baseball Savant has his slider go from 94 wiffs to 31 so it looks like his strikeout pitch wasn’t working as well as 2016... except players went from hitting .288 and slugging .500 on it in 2016 vs .242 and .377. It seems that Cashner is finding effectiveness in his slider by generating soft contact instead of strikeouts. In 2017 his K rate dropped from 7.64 to 4.64 but he gained a 6 percentage point increase in soft contact rate and a 7.4 percentage point decrease in hard contact. This is why he only had 41 extra base hits last year and only 704 total bases allowed (12 best among qualified starters in 2017).
Another change Cashner made last year was flipping his 4 seamer/2 seamer usage from 40%/25% to 24%/41%. This gave his highest groundball percentage since 2013 and a career high 23 double plays turned behind him. He also got better with runners on as he had a .340 wOBA with bases empty but .258 with runners on and ridiculous .232 with runners in scoring position.
What about next year? Can this new contact-Cashner spin his magic again and put up another unusual season? Can he be like Marco Estrada and produce some great years despite having poor peripherals? For a 1-2 year deal it would make a lot of sense to find out.