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Alex Remington

Ask Alex: Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: The 2010 Oakland Athletics were an extremely mixed bag: They combined the league's best rotation with some of its worst hitting, and finished at exactly .500, the fourth straight year they failed to win more games than they lost. Odds are, the 2011 A's will continue to pitch better than they hit, led by 22-year old All-Star Trevor Cahill(notes), 23-year old Brett Anderson(notes), 25-year old Gio Gonzalez(notes), and 26-year-old All-Star closer Andrew Bailey(notes).

A month younger than Anderson (who turned 23 on Feb. 1), Cahill is the team's youngest returning player — and was the team's biggest breakout star last year, leading the rotation with 18 wins and a 2.97 ERA despite a pedestrian 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings and mediocre 1.87 strikeout to walk radio. As Joe Stiglich of the Oakland Tribune noted, it was the first time a pitcher that young had won 18 games since Bret Saberhagen did so in 1985 — and Bret won the Cy Young for his troubles. (Cahill finished ninth in 2010.)

The Question: Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender after his breakout season?

The Analysis: It's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely. He got really lucky last year, and he'll have to get an awful lot luckier — or start striking out a whole lot more batters — to have a shot at a Cy Young award. Despite possessing an average fastball velocity of 90.4 MPH last season, he struck out more than a batter an inning in his minor league career. But once he got to the majors, his strikeout rate fell by half.

Indeed, sabermetric red flags are everywhere: Cahill's swinging strike rate, overall strikeout rate, contact rate, and batting average on balls in play are all well below the major league average, but his strand rate is well above the major league average. This means that he's giving up a lot of contact, and often hard contact, but he's been lucky on two things that are largely outside his control: how many of the batted balls fall for hits, and how many of those baserunners score. Moreover, he benefits from Oakland Coliseum, one of the best pitchers' parks in the majors — for his career, he has a 3.26 ERA at home and a 4.40 ERA on the road.

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On the bright side, Cahill is a young guy who has already won 28 games in the major leagues, and that isn't a fluke. He was a second round draft pick who blazed through the minors and has held his own in the majors despite a lack of a blazing fastball. Moreover, as Nico at Athletics Nation pointed out last week, Cahill brings other qualities to the table: He's very good at fielding his position and at inducing ground balls — which tends to suppress slugging — and he's very adaptable, constantly working on and refining his mechanics and secondary pitches. Even the bloggers at Athletics Nation don't think he's a Cy Young candidate, though, as DFA designated him as "a mid range No. 3 starter" and Nico considers him a 75 on a 100 point scale, writing:

This would mean that if in 2011, you are hoping to see an 18-game winner with an ERA under 3.00 who is in the conversation for "Top 10 Cy Young award candidates," you are going to be disappointed. It would also mean you have a pitcher who, as he makes his Cactus League debut on or about his 23rd birthday, is better than 3/4 of his major league peers — and that's a good thing to have.

Pretty much everyone from optimist to pessimist, fan to foe, has Cahill projected for a step backward this year. How much of a step backward, though, depends on whom you ask. Athletics Nation's Nico is the most optimistic: 15-10 with a 3.42 ERA and 5.7 K/9. The Bill James Handbook dials that back to 12-12 with a 3.67 ERA and 5.3 K/9. And Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system has him at 14-12 with a 4.07 ERA and 5.5 K/9.

In other words, they all pretty much agree that he won't get better at striking people out, but they disagree pretty strongly about how much that will hurt him. We have very good evidence that he can pull this off: his 2.97 ERA over 196 2/3 innings in 2010. We also have very good evidence that he can get hurt by it: his 4.63 ERA over 178 2/3 innings in 2009. All three of those projections split the difference, but Szymborski is the only one who sees 2009 as more indicative of his true talent than 2010. Unfortunately, as long as Cahill's strikeout rate remains this low, I'm inclined to agree with him.

The Forecast for 2011: Barring injury, Trevor Cahill will be a solid contributor to the 2011 A's, a starter who is especially strong in his home park. But he's a groundball pitcher who doesn't miss bats, and for all his tinkering, and his fine sinker, he hasn't found a pitch that major league hitters will swing and miss at. Until he does that, I just can't see him repeating his success over a sustained length of time. So I'll go with Szymborski, leaving the caveat that Cahill was a strikeout pitcher in the minors who could vastly beat my projections if he can find a way to translate those strikeouts to the majors. For now, I'm projecting major dropoffs in wins and ERA, with an ERA between 4.00 and 4.25, and between 11 and 14 wins.

Do you have a question about the 2011 season for Alex? Email him here.

Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?, Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?

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