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Trevor Cahill and the fringe contender conundrum

Trevor Cahill is the right mix of skill and affordability to make him very attractive to a number of teams at the trade deadline.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Cleveland Indians
Trevor Cahill is the pitcher fringe contenders should be targeting at the trade deadline.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine for a second that you’re the general manager for a fringe contender MLB team. Maybe you’re Dayton Moore, trying to get one last playoff gasp out of a Royals roster that won’t be together much longer. Maybe you’re Jerry Dipoto, trying not to curse at the baseball gods for putting nearly every one of your decent starting pitchers on the disabled list for a good portion of the season. Maybe you’re Billy Eppler, trying to finagle a playoff birth during one of the dwindling number of seasons the best player in baseball is under your employ.

You get the idea. The introduction of the second wild card spot in 2012 served to fatten up the category of teams straddling the fence between buying and selling at the trade deadline. A plethora of teams can be the proverbial “hot weekend” away from jumping to the front of the wild card line while simultaneously being a brief cold spell away from desolation.

Fringe contenders are in a tough spot. These are the teams that could benefit most from a two- or three-win upgrade, but they’re also the teams that should be most wary of trading future talent for present wins, lest they fall out of the playoff race altogether. It’s a delicate balance to strike: how to make an impactful upgrade, without selling off the future to chase unrealistic hope here and now?

Thankfully, San Diego Padres starter Trevor Cahill is here to solve the fringe contender conundrum. Cahill is having the season of his life, his underlying metrics match his surface stats, and he won’t cost an arm and a leg in terms of salary or prospects. In fact, if you ignore the that he missed six weeks this season with a shoulder injury and is, you know, Trevor Cahill, you could easily come to the conclusion that it’s Cahill, not Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish or Jeff Samardzija, who represents the best combination of ability, availability, and affordability on the trade market.

First, Cahill’s improvements this season are nothing short of staggering. His 29.5 percent strikeout rate far outpaces anything he’s ever done in the past, even during the seasons in which he pitched primarily in relief. Cahill has always generated a substantial number of groundballs (56.8 percent rate in 2017, 55.1 percent career), but is now combining that groundball rate with a bushel of strikeouts and decent if not great control (8.3 percent walk rate). Throw it all in the analytics blender and press FIP and you see a pitcher who, out of nowhere, is sporting a 3.14 ERA supported by a 3.22 FIP and 3.08 xFIP.

But, that “out of nowhere” phrase is a scary one. Other than an extra inch of movement here or a slight tick in velocity there, there is no obvious change to explain the huge skills jump Cahill has made this season.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Philadelphia Phillies
Trevor Cahill has made some impressive changes this season, but will they stick?
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Per Brooks Baseball, Cahill’s three primary pitches are a sinker, curveball, and changeup, which combine for about 80 percent of his pitches thrown. This season he’s also started using a slider, throwing the pitch just ten percent of the time, yet generating an excellent 25.8 percent swinging strike rate with it.

One possible explanation of Cahill’s improvement is that the introduction of a slider has benefitted Cahill in two ways. The first way, of course, is that the slider has directly helped him, by generating an additional 25 swinging strikes over the course of his 57 innings. The second, more speculative way is that the introduction of the slider to his repertoire has given batters a second breaking ball to worry about. The existence of a second quality breaking pitch may be the reason why Cahill has increased the swinging strike rate on his curveball by nearly seven percentage points from 2016 (19.2 percent swinging strike rate in 2017, 12.2 percent in 2016).

However, Cahill has posted a swinging strike rate with his curveball above 20 percent in the past, as recently as 2015. He also hasn’t drastically changed where he locates his curveball, throwing it almost exclusively below the zone, away to right-handers and in on lefties. Perhaps he’s simply throwing it more consistently in a way that escapes what can be captured using publicly available pitch tracking tools. Perhaps his stuff is just better suited for the 2017 run environment, where batters are swinging for the fences and are not worried about striking out.

Regardless, it’s hard to fake a 29.5 percent strikeout rate and a 13.4 percent swinging strike rate. Pair those numbers with Cahill’s always-solid groundball rate, and you have a pitcher that would not be out of place starting a playoff game a few months from now.

There are caveats, because there are always caveats. Cahill’s skills could fade just as quickly as they emerged. The shoulder strain that sidelined him for six weeks could return at any time between now and October.

But there’s a risk/reward balance to be made with any pitcher available at the trade deadline. How much riskier is Cahill than Yu Darvish, who a) may not be available and b) is not that far removed from Tommy John surgery, has experienced triceps soreness in the past few weeks, and has not reached the same performance level he exhibited pre-surgery? Sure, in a vacuum teams would rather have Darvish, but for a fringe contender, Darvish will surely cost a team more in prospect capital. For those fringe contenders, it makes more sense to acquire the cheaper pitcher in Cahill with the hope that he maintains most of the gains he’s made so far this season.

Other starting pitching options will surely emerge as we move closer to the deadline. Sonny Gray will likely be dealt, but he will require a king’s ransom since he is still under team control for two more seasons after 2017. Ditto for Jeff Samardzija, who is not only under contract for several more seasons but will cost the acquiring team both prospects and money. The Cardinals may make Lance Lynn available, but he brings his own health and performance risks, and he would also likely cost more than Cahill.

If I’m Moore, Dipoto, Eppler, or any other fringe contender GM, I’m targeting Trevor Cahill as a potential impact addition without the requisite cost impact. Fringe contenders by their nature are hoping for a playoff birth when the odds say otherwise. Playing the odds that Trevor Cahill will pitch well down the stretch this season just doesn’t seem so crazy by comparison.

Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.