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Why did Andrew Cashner struggle in 2015?

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With renewed trade rumors surrounding the Padres' starting pitcher, let's examine what might have contributed to Andrew Cashner's inconsistent 2015 season.

Now the subject of trade rumors, Andrew Cashner produced a 4.34 ERA over 184.2 IP in 2015.
Now the subject of trade rumors, Andrew Cashner produced a 4.34 ERA over 184.2 IP in 2015.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

This week, MASNsports.com's Roch Kubatko reported that the Orioles were interested in acquiring Padres' starting pitcher Andrew Cashner. The right-hander is a free agent following the 2016 season, and as the Padres don't appear competitive in a strong NL West, it would make sense to move him.

The Orioles remain interested in the hard-throwing Cashner despite what was an inconsistent 2015 season. Cashner was riding high after an ace-quality (although injury shortened) 2014, posting a 3.09 FIP while featuring one of the ten hardest fastballs in the majors.

His slider maintained its typically elite groundball and whiff rates (45.6 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively), while his changeup's new two-seam grip resulted in significant improvements in those two categories (55.0 percent and 16.0 percent).

The 2014 performance was seen as a breakout, and expectations were raised for the following season. While he wasn't a bad pitcher - Cashner still produced 2.3 fWAR in 2015 - he was more pedestrian than San Diego had hoped. His walk rate rose to 8.2 percent, opponents' BABIP rose to a career-high .330, and his ISO against jumped to .157.

While his performance declined against hitters of both handedness, FanGraphs' data shows that platoon splits against left-handed hitters declined at a far worse rate than righties.

RHH LHH
wOBA K-BB% GB% Str % wOBA K-BB% GB% Str %
2013 0.257 12.40% 59.0% 64.1% 0.308 10.6% 45.6% 65.0%
2014 0.256 13.80% 57.2% 68.8% 0.294 11.6% 38.5% 67.7%
2015 0.293 17.20% 57.1% 66.8% 0.383 6.6% 35.5% 62.2%

Cashner struck out a higher rate of same-handed hitters (21.9 percent in 2015), and his typical number of opposite-handed hitters (18.9 percent). As one may surmise based on the considerable drop in opposite-handed strike percentage, he instead walked significantly more left-handed batters (a very high 12.3 percent). What struggles he faced did disproportionately impact opposite-handed hitters.

Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller wrote a really thorough and insightful review of Cashner back in June, and concluded that timing and balance issues were rendering his sinker ineffective. He missed more frequently over the plate, and opposing hitters could more easily square it up.

However, I'd argue that the reason Cashner was disproportionately worse against lefties is that his changeup was equally or more effected by these mechanical problems. He changed to a two-seam grip on the pitch in 2014, and the off-speed offering shares similar movement with the sinker.

The pitch is a true off-speed pitch deriving value from deception, and even Cashner's pitching coach acknowledged the pitch was more hittable. Per Brooks Baseball, the pitch was wilder, almost a mile per hour harder, an inch straighter, and an inch and a half flatter.

The sinker featured similar troubling indicators, but these mechanical issues could actually be seen across Cashner's entire repertoire.  Basically everything he threw in 2015 was flatter, straighter, and harder.

cashner velo

Cashner vMove

Cashner xMove

Beller's piece goes into detail on the mechanical aspects of his delivery, but to summarize, in 2015 Cashner pitched with higher effort and his timing out of sync. Not only were his pitches easier to hit, he did not locate as well as in 2014, with his most important offerings all landing further glove-side than in the past.

cashner ft ch loc

cashner sl loc

FanGraphs reports his sinker featured a particularly precipitous drop in strikes, from 70.9 percent in 2014 to only 64.3 percent in 2015. Opposing batters produced a 155 wRC+ on the pitch, after only managing a 79 wRC+ against the prior season.

Additionally, the effect of the above location changes his best pitch (the slider) resulted in more pitches left over the strike zone - and a 27 point jump in wRC+ against. The changeup and slider each generated fewer whiffs, and the off-speed pitch generated significantly fewer ground balls (dropping from 55.0 percent in 2014 to 34.5 percent in 2015).

The situation is only so dire, though. As far anyone is aware, there is no injury or decline in stuff to be concerned about. It also isn't as though Cashner has lost feel for a single signature pitch - as Beller demonstrated back during the season, there were identifiable mechanical flaws that appear to have almost uniformly effected all his offerings.

Mechanical problems can be fixed - that's the reason pitching coaches exist. And as was stated at the top of the post, Cashner was still an average starting pitcher, despite his inconsistencies. If not addressed in San Diego, Baltimore or any other interested team should feel confident in their ability to correct these issues, and improve upon that outcome in 2016.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.