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Raisel Iglesias is living up to his potential

After some hiccups, Cincinnati's second eminent Cuban pitcher's up-and-down debut in the States is more up than down recently.

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Iglesias has hit a new gear since the All-Star Break.
Iglesias has hit a new gear since the All-Star Break.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds are in a weird place at the moment. They clearly won't contend for a title in 2015, nor do their 2016 chances look particularly great. Nevertheless, they have accumulated a ton of front-line talent in players like Joey Votto, Todd Frazier, and Aroldis Chapman, and the pieces surrounding them (Brandon Phillips, Billy Hamilton, and the like) can hold their own. Players such as Anthony DeSclafani and Eugenio Suarez have come in via trades to play a role in rejuvenating the team. While they have some depth issues, as do many star-heavy clubs, they could still turn things around in the years to come.

Into this confusion comes Raisel Iglesias, signed out of Cuba last June. He played fleetingly in 2014, but his strong showing in the Fall League and in 2015's spring training earned him a slot in the starting rotation. After he sputtered in his opening start, the Reds demoted him for a few weeks; he came back up in mid-May, continuing to fall short. A strained oblique sidelined him at the beginning of June, and his first game after the injury went pretty poorly. He followed that up with a rest during the All-Star break, after which he's looked like a completely different pitcher.

In other words, Iglesias has had a bumpy 2015. Overall, we can divide his season into pre- and post-All-Star break chunks, which differ in just about every regard:

ASB IP K% BB% GB% HR% BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Pre 29.0 20.6% 6.9% 36.4% 1.5% .363 62.5% 151 83 105
Post 30.1 27.6% 6.5% 48.1% 3.3% .247 77.5% 91 95 87

While the home runs have jumped, everything else has improved. In many ways, Iglesias has become a major-league pitcher. But what could have precipitated such a turnaround? Let's dive into PITCHf/x data to find out.

Throughout 2015, Iglesias has relied chiefly on a sinker. Although Kiley McDaniel — or any other prospect analysts, from what I can tell — didn't note the pitch prior to the season, it's occupied a solid 32.6 percent of his pitches after the break to go along with 36.7 percent prior. This epitomizes one of the more salient points about Iglesias: He hasn't tinkered much with his pitch mix.

Over that time, the sinker's clout has gone in the right direction. Whereas it used to travel 92.2 MPH with a 9.8-inch run and 4.9-inch drop, the last month has seen its velocity climb up to 92.9 as its horizontal and vertical movements have shifted to a respective 10.0 and 4.2 inches. That power has coincided with marginally better command of the pitch, which Iglesias has managed to focus down in the zone (as one generally does with a sinker):

IglesiasSI

This change has, unsurprisingly, caused the sinker's ground ball rate to increase (from 40.6 percent to 60.7 percent) and its whiff rate to decrease (from 8.2 percent to 6.1 percent). That accounts for a lot of Iglesias' uptick in worm burners, but it appears to contradict his punchout gains. How has he simultaneously fared better in both?

His other hard offering has a lot to do with it. Before the break, the four-seam fastball posted a satisfactory 5.6 percent swinging strike rate along with a 20.2 percent looking strike rate. Both of those have risen considerably since then to 8.5 percent and 22.9 percent, respectively. Interestingly, though, the pitch has slightly lost velocity in that span, dropping from 93.3 MPH to 92.9 MPH. Its rise has come from something else.

When the Reds first inked Iglesias, Ben Badler's scouting report noted this about his delivery:

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...

That held true in the early going of the season, in which Iglesias didn't find a consistent place for his four-seam release. However, he eventually settled in:

IglesiasFFRP

As the error bars illustrate, Iglesias still adjusts his arm slot during individual games; now, though, his inter-game motion remains the same. This better feel for the pitch has presumably helped Iglesias command it more effectively, which in turn would explain the offering's renewed vigor.

Nevertheless, the four seamer still doesn't fool hitters that often. The most whiff-heavy pitch in Iglesias' arsenal has been the slider, which has an overall swinging-strike rate of 18.4 percent. Although batters haven't missed it as much recently — its whiff rate has slumped to 15.9 percent — their called strike rate against it has come up to 21.7 percent. Importantly, the pitch's BABIP has fallen from .389 to .143. Balls in play haven't hurt Iglesias during his hot streak, and the slider warrants the credit for most of that.

The breaking ball has always possessed the most intriguing potential. McDaniel's scouting report gave the pitch a 60 future grade, despite only 50 present ability. Writing for Sports on Earth last June, Eric Longenhagen described the slider thusly:

He'll supplement the fastball with a slider in the 78-81 mph range, a pitch that plays above average thanks to that aforementioned deception. Iglesias will add and subtract to the breaking ball to vary the velocity and vertical depth of the pitch. He does this enough that the Reds consider it a separate pitch, a curveball that falls in the low to mid 70s.

Brooks doesn't think the same, but it does note that Iglesias can significantly modify his velocity and horizontal movement on the slider — and that he's done so much more as of late:

IglesiasSLV

IglesiasSLMov

In numeric form, those figures look like this:

ASB Avg Velo Avg Velo Range Avg VMov Avg VMov Range
Pre 82.6 4.6 -0.6 5.8
Post 83.2 6.4 -0.3 7.9

Not only has Iglesias packed on more heat as a whole, he's kept hitters guessing about it too. Its usage rate has gone from 24.5 percent to 30.7 percent, so this quality has led to more quantity. The slider has already improved from 3.5 runs below average before the break to 1.9 runs above average after it; if he can continue to throw it in this manner, it'll likely climb even further.

There's one more pitch here as well: a changeup, which Iglesias hasn't implemented as much (it comprises 11.8 percent of his pitches overall). Iglesias hadn't fully developed it when Cincinnati brought him in; recognizing the pitch's nascence, McDaniel gave it a 45 grade in the offseason, albeit with a 50 grade for the time after that. It lived up to that appraisal in the first half, its 36.4 percent ground ball rate and .583 BABIP negating a superb 15.2 percent whiff rate.

Maybe Iglesias worked on something while his teammates played in the Midsummer Classic, because the pitch has looked nothing like its old self in his five games back from that. While its velocity has held steady, it's moved differently in both directions:

ASB Velo HMov VMov
Pre 86.5 -8.6 2.8
Post 86.5 -9.0 2.2

And its location has concentrated more down and in:

IglesiasCH

This has corresponded with more whiffs (19.6 percent), grounders (87.5 percent), and outs (.000 BABIP). Granted, the sample size here is pretty small — Iglesias has thrown a total of 114 changeups this season — but this still looks good for the future. Together with that slider, this could give Iglesias a formidable offspeed-breaking one-two punch.

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.

. . .

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.