Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 6/28/12

Trevor Bauer makes his Major League Debut tonight. Carson already wrote about it, and the coverage of his impending promotion has included months of conversation, including a movement to #FreeTrevorBauer. Bauer’s big league debut has been heavily anticipated and is now going to be heavily watched.

However, there’s another guy getting called up from the minors to join the rotation of an NL West team tonight too, and he’s doing it with little to no fanfare. Carson didn’t even mention his start under “other notable games”, and no one has ever used the hashtag #FreeAndrewCashner. So, while the Trevor Bauer Hype Train rolls on, don’t miss out on Andrew Cashner‘s first real big league start, because he very well may be the best pitching prospect to take the mound tonight.

Okay, so, Cashner isn’t technically a prospect, and the fact that he’s already got 93 Major League innings under his belt is part of the reason why there’s hardly any attention being paid to his re-debut. We like shiny new things, and Cashner isn’t as new as Bauer, who most fans have never seen pitch. Cashner is a guy who was a prospect, missed time with injuries, changed roles, got traded, and is now trying to re-establish himself as a starter. That’s not as interesting a story as a guy whose pre-game long toss routine (which already has its own video on YouTube) includes throwing from foul pole to foul pole, talks openly about the value of relative pitch locations, and generally does his own thing.

Bauer’s a unique personality who does some things that set him apart from the norm, while Cashner is just more of a traditional pitching prospect who throws really hard. But, if we put aside the stuff that goes on before the game starts and just focus on performance to date, Cashner looks more like the guy who is ready to get big league hitters out on a regular basis.

Let’s start by putting their minor league track records side by side:

Cashner, AA+AAA: 134 IP, 97 H, 50 R, 1 HR, 45 BB, 130 K
Bauer, AA+AAA: 110 IP, 95 H, 40 R, 5 HR, 56 BB, 142 K

Cashner has faced 540 batters between those two levels while Bauer has faced 475, but overall, we see that they haven’t performed all that differently. Bauer’s advantage in strikeout rate (30% vs 24%) is pretty much canceled out by his extra walks (12% vs 8%), and then the difference in home runs allowed makes it advantage Cashner. In terms of FIP, Cashner comes out ahead 2.46 versus 3.08, so while his overall minor league performance has included fewer strikeouts, it included a better combination of all things that go into pitching well. If you want to include BABIP in the conversation, the gap actually own grows wider, as Cashner’s at .272 and Bauer’s at .329. I don’t think you should really care about a minor league pitcher’s BABIP over a sample of ~100 innings, but just figured it was worth pointing out that this isn’t a case where there’s a difference in hit prevention that FIP isn’t capturing.

We have to choose to care about strikeouts above all else to prefer Bauer’s AA+AAA line to Cashner’s, and even then, we probably need to note that the lower strikeout version of Andrew Cashner hasn’t been seen in a few years. In 2009, Cashner struck out just 16.5% of the Double-A batters he faced, as he was dealing with command issues of his own and didn’t have much besides a 92-97 MPH fastball at the time. In ranking him as the #4 prospect in the Cubs system that winter, Jim Callis of Baseball America noted that he regularly sat 92-95 and touched 98 as a starter, and had thrown a bit harder than that in relief.

That doesn’t describe Cashner anymore. After sitting out most of last season due to shoulder soreness developed in his first start of the year, Cashner came back as a reliever in the season’s final month and then made up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is where he really started lighting up radar guns, hitting 100 with regularity and showing that his shoulder wasn’t bothering him anymore. Then, in spring training, Cashner started sitting at 101 and 102, and that velocity carried over the regular season. In graph form, here’s Cashner’s fastball in the big leagues over the last three years:

His average fastball this year was 98.8. In 2010, when he pitched exclusively in relief for the Cubs, it was 96.2, so this isn’t just a starter-reliever thing. The 2012 version of Andrew Cashner throws a lot harder than previous versions, and not surprisingly, he’s seen an increase in strikeouts because of it. In the majors, even with spotty command, he struck out 27.4% of the batters he faced. During his three tune-up starts in Double-A to get stretched out to start again, that was 41.1%.

So, Cashner might still not be in Bauer’s league as a strikeout pitcher (mostly thanks to Bauer’s hammer curve, which is a knockout breaking ball), but the gap is probably smaller than you might think from just looking at each pitcher’s total K% in Double-A and Triple-A. As well, Cashner has a significantly better track record of throwing strikes and throws significantly harder, both of which are points in his favor.

However, the big difference is what kinds of balls in play they allow. As noted in the linked piece above, Bauer sees ground balls as the enemy. He’s openly talked about how he sees no value in avoiding fly balls, as he’ll trade the extra home runs allowed for more strikeouts by pitching in lower contact parts of the zone. That’s fine – lots of pitchers make this trade-off, especially guys with good fastballs who can throw it by hitters with regularity. But there is a trade-off, and fly ball pitchers do give up more home runs than ground ball pitchers. While we shouldn’t read too much into Bauer’s home run rate since getting promoted to the crazy hitter friendly PCL, his publicly divulged plan to give up fly balls in the big leagues could lead to some real issues.

There are 31 MLB starting pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this year and posted a GB% below 40%. As a group, they’ve combined to allow 1.19 HR/9 compared to a league average of 1.01. There are some good pitchers in this group, including guys like Justin Verlander, Johan Santana, Jered Weaver, and Dan Haren. Certainly, you can be a good pitcher and a fly ball pitcher at the same time. But those four all throw strikes, and a lot of them – Bauer hasn’t shown he can do that yet. From A-ball all the way up, he’s walked at least 10% of the batters he’s faced, and if you’re looking for bad command fly ball success stories, the list gets a lot shorter. There’s Max Scherzer, for one. And yeah, well, that’s about it among current starters.

Like Bauer, Scherzer came up with the D’Backs as a high-BB/high-K starter, and while he’s managed to get his command problems under control to some degree, he’s 700 innings into his career and still more of a good pitcher than a great one. If Bauer turns into Max Scherzer, will people be disappointed? Probably, but they shouldn’t be, because given his current problems throwing strikes and his aversion to the ground ball, there’s some real potential for early career struggles, especially given the ballpark he’s going to pitch in.

Meanwhile, Cashner has no problem with the ground ball, and has already shown he can keep the ball in the yard while getting strikeouts at the same time. And, of course, he’s going to be calling Petco Park home, which is where fly balls to right field go to die. With Cashner, the concerns are more health related than performance related – if he can hold up under a starter’s workload, he’s got a chance to put up some fantastic numbers in Petco and still be a high-quality starter on the road. Groundballs and strikeouts are a proven winner, while walks and fly balls have a bit more of a dubious track record.

Bauer’s a talented and interesting kid, but of the two kids joining NL West rotations tonight, he’s the least likely to succeed in the short term, and maybe even in the long term. Bauer’s going to have to figure out how to throw strikes with more regularity and determine whether his fly ball philosophy is really the best fit for the thin air of Arizona, while Cashner just has to stay healthy. They’re both good young hurlers, but in this case, I think the hype is being apportioned to the wrong guy. Cashner is really the guy to watch tonight.

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