HEIGHT 6-4, WEIGHT 200, B/T: L/L
The level at which Cingrani has performed in his 1+ professional seasons has completely altered the perception of him as a prospect. In professional baseball, it's not easy to shake a label once it has been applied. Cingrani has done that. However, I now think it's fair to wonder whether he is still being undervalued. Whether the original view of him is still dragging down the current view.
Given that the previous opinion was based, at least in part, on Cingrani before he changed his mechanics and before he switched from the bullpen to the rotation, it arguably has little bearing on the pitcher he is now. If we didn't have that initial data point, would he rate higher than he is now? (Is this scenario akin to the Daniel Kahneman improper anchor effect?) If you throw out the original opinion and view him based solely on who he is now and what he has done as a professional, then he *might* actually be considered even better than the current hype, which would really be saying something.
DRAFT POSITION AND AMATEUR CAREER
The Reds selected Cingrani out of Rice University with the 114th overall pick in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft.
Cingrani actually began his collegiate career by pitching two seasons at South Suburban Junior College in Illinois, breaking both the single-season and career strikeout records. He transferred to Rice and posted a lackluster 8.58 ERA in six starts as a junior. Due to his struggles, he reworked his pitching mechanics at the behest of Rice pitching coach, David Pierce, and head coach, Wayne Graham, resulting in a breakout season as a senior. (Another example of taking the good with the (alleged) bad when it comes to college programs. Programs like Rice, with pitcher workload, and Stanford, with the swing mechanics they teach, take so much criticism that it becomes easy to overlook all the things they do well.)
In 2011, as a senior, Cingrani was used as a closer and truly excelled, posting a 1.74 ERA, 12 saves, and a 66/10 K/BB ratio in 57.0 innings. The baseball program at Rice University is one of the best in the country, but also, justifiably or not, has the reputation of overworking its starting pitchers. As a result, Cingrani's time in the bullpen could be a blessing, as it arguably reduced his injury risk and left him with a fresh arm when he reached the professional ranks. Working exclusively as a reliever also, for better or worse, enabled him to rely heavily on his fastball, a focus which made that a special offering and left his other offerings unpolished. The final benefit of Cingrani's bullpen role was a lowered profile, which enabled Chris Buckley's "gut" to land him in the 3rd round for the Cincinnati Reds.
2011 AND 2012 SEASONS
Shortly after the draft, some pundits, including John Sickels, immediately pointed to Cingrani as a sleeper for the Reds. One of the great things about sleepers (for organizations) is that their lack of mainstream appeal limits their leverage, which resulted in Cingrani signing a contract quickly enough to pitch in the 2011 season. He wasted little time in proving those pundits (and the Reds scouting department) correct.
Cingrani joined the Billings Mustangs of the rookie Pioneer League, where he dominated the competition to the tune of a 1.75 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 80/6 (!!) K/BB ratio in 51.1 innings. As a college age prospect, he had a significant age vs. level advantage, but he even outperformed that expected advantage, raising his prospect profile and setting himself up nicely heading into the 2012 season.
In 2012, Cingrani started out in high-A Bakersfield, but again proved way too advanced for the competition, posting a 1.11 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and a 71/13 (!!) K/BB ratio in 56.2 innings. His GB/FB ratio was a neutral 0.94 and his batting average against was a miniscule189. It was clear that he was too polished for high-A and the Reds promoted him up the ladder to double-A.
|Courtesy Jamie Sabau/Getty Images|
For the big club, Cingrani pitched 5.0 innings over three appearances, posting a 1.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and a 9/2 (!!) K/BB ratio. During his MLB stint, Cingrani leaned heavily on his fastball (91.0% of the time), occasionally mixing in his slider (5.0% of the time) and changeup (4.0% of the time). Obviously, going forward, he'll need a better mix of pitches, but it was an impressive debut, though not one that earned him a spot on the postseason roster. When considered in total, Cingrani's two promotions and performance at three separate professional levels was just as impressive as his remarkable 2011 debut.
There's something special about Cingrani's fastball. For a pitcher with very good, but not elite, velocity, he generates swings-and-misses at a very high rate. For a pitcher still developing a consistent breaking ball, his strikeout rate is tremendous. So, is it deception? Is it late "rise/hop" like Matt Cain's fastball? Whatever it is, it's not readily apparent, so we turn to the mechanics.
There's an amusing and insightful article on MILB.com discussing Cingrani entitled "Cingrani Looking Smooth: Billings southpaw racking up strikeouts with easy delivery." Amusing because the article is paired with the following photo:
|Courtesy Chris Talley/FutureStarPhotos.com|
Insightful because of the following blurb: "Cingrani said he worked to tweak his mechanics and that his arm and lower body became synched. That allowed him to throw with more velocity and be more consistent in the strike zone."
The photo shows the arm swing that Cingrani used at Rice before tweaking his mechanics, so it's a poor fit for both the title and substance of the article. The blurb supports the notion that Cingrani followed through with the refinements to his mechanics to more effectively generate force with the lower body, resulting in improved performance and less stress on the body.
As with Robert Stephenson's mechanics, Cingrani's mechanics are very clean during the first phase. It's the second stage, after the apex of the leg kick, where things get interesting. The primary difference between the mechanics of the two prospects is efficiency. Cingrani does a better job transferring all the momentum generated in the first phase of the windup to the baseball in the second phase, whereas Stephenson's delivery bleeds some momentum due to his limited hip rotation.
Cingrani begins his windup with an actual rocker step, which is becoming increasingly rare. These days, it seems much more fashionable to simply step down and forward with the stride foot to begin the windup. Cingrani takes a legitimate step towards third base to trigger his windup, which I prefer both for its fluidity and potential for increasing the generation of momentum. After the rocker step, he rotates his body and brings his leg up into the leg kick. His knee comes up past parallel and he maintains good balance at the apex. His leg kick doesn't include much body coil, as his knee doesn't wrap around the body, but he does manage to cock his hips.
As he begins to unpack the leg kick and drive to the plate, he breaks his hands to begin his arm swing, which is probably the most recognizable characteristic of his mechanics. Even after he reworked his mechanics, Cingrani still has a long arm action, beginning when he breaks his hands and ending when he brings the ball up into throwing position. Cingrani's arm-swing goes from 9 o'clock to almost 3 o'clock. When his arm reaches 6 o'clock, he begins using a wrist-wrap. Before he changed his mechanics at Rice, he would swing his straight arm all the way up to the 9 o'clock position (see photo above), a la Madison Bumgarner and Marc Rzepczynski, but now Cingrani bends the elbow to a 90 degree angle when the arm reaches the 5 o'clock position, just before bringing the arm up into throwing position. It's impressive just how quickly and effectively Cingrani revised his mechanics, which isn't always easy to do.
In the two photos below, taken at similar points in his delivery, you can see the refinements he made to his arm swing, as his pitching arm is more rigid in the left photo and more fluid and flexed in the right photo. Cingrani believes the refinements he made to his mechanics allowed his upper and lower body to work more effectively together.
|Courtesy Eric Sorenson|
|Courtesy Chris Nelson, MILB.com|
Cingrani's longer arm swing and the use of the wrist-wrap actually cause him to be late in getting the arm up into throwing position. When his stride foot lands, his pitching arm is not up in proper throwing position. However, while this is usually a bit of a red flag, it may actually work to Cingrani's advantage, as the lagging arm seems to effectively delay the rotation of his upper body, increasing the differential between his hip rotation and shoulder rotation. This differential increases the force he can impart to the baseball and reduces stress on the arm by generating more of the required force with the lower body. The coordination and rotation of Cingrani's upper and lower body is both very impressive and highly efficient. The strong hip rotation and delayed shoulder rotation combine to ensure that the hip rotation simply pulls the upper body and the arm right along with it, rather than the arm having to generate that force by itself.
Another factor that seems to really boost Cingrani's fastball is his physical stature. He stands 6-4, which gives him longer arms. Taller pitchers, with longer arms, not only release the ball slightly closer to the plate, but their longer levers also have the ability to generate more whip-like force. In the kid's game of crack-the-whip, the longer the whip, the more force generated at the end of the whip.
The combination of Cingrani's kinetic-chain mechanics, longer arm, and longer arm-action seems to give his arm-action added whip-like force. When his hips fire, they pull his upper body (including a long and loose arm that generates its own whip-like force) right along with it.
Cingrani utilizes a high three-quarters release point when he pitches. Some people point to good deception as a reason for his impressive fastball, but, in light of his extensive arm swing, I'm not convinced that that's the main the reason. He really shows the ball to the hitter when he brings it away from his body, but there is a touch of deception when he brings the ball to the release point, as the delayed shoulder rotation keeps the ball lower and hidden behind his head for a touch longer than normal.
After he releases the ball, his strong body rotation naturally brings his trailing leg all around to finish the pitch and controls his momentum into a balanced, squared-up fielding position.
Here's a good look at Cingrani in action courtesy of Steve Fiorindo on YouTube:
And, since I couldn't decide between the two, here's another good look at Cingrani courtesy of Mike Newman on YouTube:
Overall, Cingrani features my favorite pitching mechanics in the system.
Cingrani has 90-94 mph fastball that serves as his main pitch. The whip-like arm action, possibly adding rise/hop to the pitch, and a touch of deception in his delivery enable his fastball to play up, as it gets on the hitter sooner than he expects. He also has the ability to locate his fastball, not just throwing strikes, but consistently hitting his spots inside the zone. To go along with his impressive fastball, Cingrani features both a slider and changeup.
The changeup, which has late movement, fading to the arm side, is already a plus pitch. And, the movement on the pitch works to his advantage, as it tails away from a righthanded hitter, giving him an effective weapon against opposite side hitters. The fact that he already has a pitch to get opposite side hitters out is yet another reason for long-term optimism.
The slider is the pitch that Cingrani needs in order to be an effective MLB starter, as his main two pitches are essentially straight offerings. He needs a breaking ball to change the eye level of hitters, giving him a pitch with a two-plane break. His slider shows flashes of being a very good pitch, but remains inconsistent. Still, giving the arm-whip generated by his mechanics, he should be able to get good wrist snap on a breaking ball. If he can master it, it'll increase his effectiveness, especially against lefthanded hitters. Cingrani has leaned heavily on the fastball (and justifiably so) in his professional career, but his other pitches have the potential to be effective in their own right.
Before digging into both pitchers for these write-ups, I was expecting Robert Stephenson to rate higher than Tony Cingrani. Cingrani turned out to be more impressive. In the long run, Stephenson certainly could turn out to be the superior pitcher, but, for me, Cingrani's combination of effective and efficient pitching mechanics, lefthandedness, plus fastball, and higher probability of panning out simply outweighed Stephenson's better velocity and more polished breaking ball.
It'll be interesting to see how Cingrani's career plays out. He needs to continue refining his secondary offerings in order to have consistent success as a starter, but has had experience and success as a reliever. The Reds rotation is also getting crowded, especially if the "Aroldis to the rotation" experiment is carried through to fruition. At the same time, Cingrani has yet to run into a level of competition that has managed to slow him down, though the MLB experience was a very, very small sample size.
Given his ability and upside, the Reds would be wise to see what he can do as a starter, even if the temptation is to shift him to the bullpen. For now, Tony Cingrani lands comfortably in the #2 slot on the list.