A Silver Lining

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Back in April, I wrote in this space about what we could expect from rookie right-hander Raisel Iglesias. He had just made his major league debut—a 5 inning, three run effort—and had already been sent to AAA for more “seasoning.” Here’s what I thought at the time:

At this point, if we want to project Iglesias’ future, we don’t have much to go on. Projection systems don’t do well without data to input, and Iglesias has been a mystery to almost everyone except scouts. The Reds think he can be a starter, and they’ve seen him more than I have, so we will have to trust their judgment. What I have seen, however, is enough to intrigue me. I hope the club sticks with this experiment, and I hope we see Iglesias back in the majors sooner rather than later.

Little did I know that, just four short months later, Iglesias would be the only thing worth watching* about the 2015 Cincinnati Reds. But here we are, and we have a little more data now. That data makes me pretty excited about Iglesias’ potential.

*Apologies to Joey Votto, who is always worth watching.

Let’s look at the raw numbers: Raisel is 3-5 with a 3.93 ERA in 12 starts (14 appearances). He has struck out 77 and walked 21. His FIP is 3.41, and he has totaled 1.4 wins above replacement.

And he’s only getting better. Over the weekend, he struck out 13 in a brilliant 7-inning performance (one earned run allowed on three hits). Of course the Reds didn’t get the win for Iglesias because…well, because they’re the Reds. Still, no Reds rookie has struck out 13 in a game since 1967, when Gary Nolan struck out 15 Giant* batters. In his last 47.1 innings, Iglesias has fanned 47 and walked just 9. That’s getting it done.

*San Francisco Giants. They weren’t literally giant batters. They were normal sized. I mean, Willie McCovey was 6’4’, which is pretty big. McCovey struck out three times that day. Willie Mays is a figurative giant in baseball history; he was 0-4 with 4 strikeouts on that June day.

We’ve barely seen anything of this kid, still. He’s only 25, after all, and until this season, all we had to go on was his good performances in the Arizona Fall League and this year’s spring training. He spent much of the early part of the season in the minors after that initial start. Even after returning to the big leagues, Iglesias had to go on the disabled list in June with a strained oblique.

Remember what I said above about having some data to look at now? Well, we’re only 12 starts into his career, but some interesting things are beginning to emerge from the numbers. I had intended to dig into those numbers, but then I realized that Ryan Romano at Beyond the Box Score had already done that work for me. Hey, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel if I don’t have to, you know. I’m going to excerpt a little from that piece, but you really need to go read the whole thing. It’s very good and very detailed.

Romano’s examination was from a week ago, so it didn’t encompass Iglesias’ two most recent starts, both of which were nothing short of outstanding. But even without taking those two starts into account, he was already seeing a significant improvement across the board in Iglesias’ numbers since the second half began. Raisel has improved his walk rate, his strikeout rate, his ground ball rate (important for Great American Ball Park, of course), and the results have been good, as you have seen. There are various reasons for the improvement: better command of his sinker, finding a more consistent release point for his four-seam fastball, a slider that is next to unhittable (one of the ten-best sliders in baseball, according to Eno Sarris), and a much-improved changeup with better location.

My favorite thing about Iglesias, however, goes beyond the numbers (as it often does with me): he’s just fun to watch throw a baseball. Here’s what Ben Badler said about Iglesias when he signed with the Reds:

He doesn’t repeat his mechanics, which affects his command, though part of that is by design, as Iglesias (like many other Cuban pitchers) intentionally moves around his arm slot and manipulates the shape and speed of his breaking ball.

There’s a tendency to lump Iglesias in with fellow Cuban Aroldis Chapman, which is fair, I guess, since they throw hard, were largely unknowns before crashing onto the scene, and there’s a whole starter or reliever thing going on with both of them. Watching Iglesias change speeds and use different arm angles during a game, however, reminds me of another Red of recent vintage: Bronson Arroyo. Can you imagine Bronson Arroyo with a devastating slider and a fastball that reaches up to 97 mph?

It’s enough to make a Reds fan optimistic in the face of everything that’s dragging us down this year. Romano agrees:

The Reds knew Iglesias had a respectable repertoire when they gave him a seven-year contract. They stood alone in their insistence that he could start successfully at the major-league level. He’ll take the hill for them tonight against a dominant Royals team, and if he performs at this level, they won’t stand a chance. After turning over nearly its entire starting rotation, Cincinnati seems to have found the first piece to rebuilding it.

Indeed they have, and there’s every reason to believe that Iglesias will continue to improve. He’ll be 26 next year and seems destined to be one of Cincinnati’s top two or three starters in 2016 (though that’s not as impressive as it sounds, given the mass exodus of starting pitching from the Queen City in the last year), along with Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani. Barring injury, there’s reason to believe that Iglesias can be one of the top two starters on the next good Reds team.

Bronson Arroyo with stuff? Yes, I like the sound of that.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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