Tony Cingrani doesn’t look like a starting pitcher. Yes, he’s tall and sturdy enough, but his facial expressions and mannerisms are of a different breed. He works quickly with his pant legs pulled up. He licks his fingers after seemingly every pitch, making sure that no pitch is wasted because of a weak grip.
His gaze is more fierce than menacing, portraying a confidence that borders on cockiness. It is almost like Cingrani sees the batter’s doom as a foregone conclusion, that his battling and fouling off pitches is just delaying the inevitable failure. He skips off the mound quickly, as if he has something important waiting for him on the bench.
The 23-year-old rookie has a closer mentality, which makes sense given that he led Rice with 12 saves and started only two games during his senior year in 2010. But perhaps it’s that confidence, born out of a youthful naiveté that has burgeoned and buried so many young pitchers before him, that has made him successful.
He seems to treat each inning as if it’s the ninth inning. Runners on base, magazine cover boys at the plate or falling behind in the count—no situation affects his approach. But that is partly because, at this point in his career, his approach reads like a nugget of wisdom from Mr. Miyagi: throw the heat.
Cingrani has masterful command of his fastball (four walks in three starts, with at least one of those being semi-intentional) and throws it often. Through three starts, he has thrown his fastball 81 percent of the time, which is the third most among starters with at least 10 innings pitched. His velocity is statistically a little above average at 92.2 MPH. But like so many pitchers with closer blood, Cingrani was able to reach back and touch 95 and 96 MPH during some key moments against the Washington Nationals last Sunday. (He finished that start with his most impressive line to date—6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 11 Ks.)
However, his heavy reliance on the heater is slightly worrisome and likely not sustainable. In 2012, only Cleveland’s Justin Masterson threw fastballs on more than 72.2 percent of his pitches. (Masterson was at 80.7 percent…and also had a career-high ERA of 4.93.) In fact, since 2002, when Fangraphs first began charting many of their advanced statistics, there have been only eight qualified pitchers that topped the 80 percent FB mark. (Masterson and Aaron Cook both have done it twice.)
It makes sense though that Cingrani has relied on his fastball so much in his first three starts. The fastball is the security blanket for young pitchers, the safety net they turn to when they need a friend. They believe that the fastball would never betray them. And so far for Cingrani, his hasn’t. It has late life and seems to be difficult for batters to pick up. (I should note, however, that Cingrani does have an above average slider that he used to rack up a few Ks against Washington. But he does not have the confidence in that pitch yet to throw it unless he is ahead of the batter. He will have to, though, once hitters begin seeing his fastball.)
But will Cingrani get the chance to sustain his excellent start? Through three starts, he has posted an incredible 1.50 ERA, 1.70 xFIP, and 14.00 K/9. (Even more impressive? Those numbers are actually worse than his line before the call up. In three AAA starts this year, Cingrani had a 0.00 ERA, 0.20 FIP, and 16.33 K/9.)
But the only reason Cingrani was called up was to replace an injured Johnny Cueto. With Cueto set to return some time in the next few weeks, Dusty Baker is left with a decision. He has two viable options and a third ugly, unfair option. The viable options would be to keep Cingrani in the rotation and to option Mike Leake to AAA or move him to the bullpen, or move Cingrani to the bullpen and option a relief pitcher to Louisville. I cringe at the idea of Dusty over-thinking and sending Cingrani down for more seasoning, but it unfortunately is a possibility.
The conundrum could help to be solved if management decides where they envision Mike Leake in the team’s future plans. At this point, I don’t see Leake as anything more than a fifth, maybe fourth starter if you’re feeling crazy. He is going to hover around the 10-win mark and a 4.10 ERA while not missing a whole lot of bats. Perhaps the team values this, er, consistency? But I will always side with the potential and risk the potential pitfalls over valuing sustained mediocrity. Cingrani offers the team much more potential in the rotation than Leake and he has earned the opportunity to start regularly at the major league level.
Let’s look at this way. In Cingrani’s aforementioned start against Washington, the third of his career, he had a game score of 78. In 83 starts since 2010, Leake has just three game scores of 78 or better. We know what we are getting from Leake. The unknown that is yet to come for Cingrani is far more enticing.
4: Strikeouts by Cingrani in the bottom of the 4th inning in his last start thanks to Denard Span advancing on a dropped third strike by Corky Miller.
2: The recommend spot in the batting order for Joey Votto, according to ESPN’s Keith Law (ESPN insider required). Though the article is more of an indictment of hitting poor Zach Cozart in the two-hole.
135: Combined number of jarred tomato sauces and wheels of Pecorino Romano that my Italian family would have hurled at me for not supporting someone whose birth name is Anthony Michael Cingrani. But I swear this had no influence.
Adam Flango is a video producer at CBSsports.com. He turned to writing after having his athletic career derailed due to an illicit love affair with rigatoni and meat sauce.