Time once again for an afternoon BUO to prep y'all for an evening game against the accursed A's. Going against the Sox tonight is Trevor Cahill, fresh off an impressive 2010 season that he ended with an ERA under 3. Though I doubt very much he'll repeat that performance, as his peripherals and the projection systems suggest his true talent is in the neighborhood of 4 earned per 9. So he's pretty good, but probably not an ace.
The most significant impediment to ace status is Cahill's lack of a true swing-and-miss offering. Yes, he's struck out more than a batter per inning so far in 2011, but his career to this point casts doubt that he'll keep it up. To wit: MLB starters in 2010 struck out nearly 7 batters every 9 innings. Cahill managed just 5.4, despite his above average control. And that mark is much better than his debut season (not even 5 K's per 9).
So he is very much of the pitch-to-contact school, which often enough means "gets groundballs". This Cahill does with aplomb. He throws a true sinker that runs a long way from lefties and bores in on righties. Think Derek Lowe:
Fairly comparable. The table includes anything tabbed as a sinker since April 2010 for each. They're not the same exact pitch, but it's clear that Cahill is a real deal sinkerballer who can dominate RHB with a single pitch provided he's locating it.
From the two starts I took in, he seemed fairly able to do just that to a majority of righties. I think this is largely because he zeroes in on a single location: low and away. Against the Blue Jays last Thursday, I don't think I saw him go in to a RHB except on accident. He knew that he was going to get lots of outs with roll-overs on pull swings. The Jays consistently accommodated his strategy. Not one of their many right handed batters showed much desire to take Cahill the other way...except Jayson Nix of all people. He was rewarded with a single to right.
I doubt very much the White Sox will mirror the Jays' approach. Gordon Beckham, Paul Konerko and Brent Morel number among the good opposite field hitters in the Sox lineup and the first two have shown they can do it with power. And of course, just to spite me, the latter two were given the night off.
Cahill's response to that strategy should be interesting to watch and I'm not sure what he'll do. As mentioned, he was very reluctant to go inside against the Jays and for good reason. He mowed them down thanks to their pull-happy orientation. I also watched a bad start against the Royals from last September and though there were more opposite-field attempts from hitters, he seemed committed to staying away-away-away. This worked until his command faltered and he got roughed up after throwing far more mistakes than normal.
I expected in particular to see him move the ball around more against Billy Butler, who's shown he can go oppo with power. And indeed, Butler took Cahill yard on an inside fastball on the first pitch of his third PA. But it wasn't where Kurt Suzuki wanted the pitch, as he lined up to receive in Cahill's preferred low-and-away location. Maybe they weren't on the same page. To me, it looked like Cahill was just off all night, that pitch being another instance of his inability to spot the fastball.
My guess is that Cahill is still pretty young and only has a couple locations he's really comfortable with at this point in his career. If that's the case, then the strategy for righties, especially in the early going, should be to hit the sinker the other way. The disadvantage there is the possibility of seeing a curve ball early in the count. He's a smart pitcher who doesn't mind pitching backward if he thinks he can get away with it. But he didn't seem to be able to command those early-count curves and left them up in the zone.
That's not to say it's a bad pitch. He can get some K's with the curve, especially if he gets way ahead and has the opportunity to really bury it low and away. It has tight rotation and good bite when he hits that spot. It's far less intimidating when he's working it for early strikes and I assume that pitch explains the Jays' pull-happy attack. And they nearly had one off him in the first, but Juan Rivera's shot off an early-count roller didn't have enough mustard to clear the wall. A better hitter might have parked it.
His limited location issue and sinker-heavy approach has consequences against LHB, as his change is a pretty average offering. He gets a lot of movement on it and can get whiffs and bad contact, but it isn't great. That combined with below-average velocity means he's not going to have an easy time with lefties unless he's really spotting his fastball. From what I saw, he struggles with this as he's not yet used to moving the fastball in and out. And of course, a sinker isn't the kind of pitch you practice throwing up and in.
Ozzie is apparently well aware of this, as he's slotted in 5 guys who will swing from the left side. I wish it didn't mean taking out Beckham, who I think is a very good match-up against Cahill. And I think I prefer Morel to Teahen, who has some pop but more than compensates with excessive strikeouts. That's more of a toss-up though. Fortunately, Adam Dunn is back in the lineup and he's precisely the kind of hitter Cahill should struggle against. Hopefully Dunn is recovered sufficiently and can take advantage of this favorable matchup.
On the other side of the plate, if Cahill's command is there Sox right handers will have a very difficult time indeed if they can't get him out of his comfort zone. If we can go to the opposite field for a double or two, it could go a long ways toward making him throw pitches where he isn't used to. If not, a second consecutive night of fizzling bats could be in the works.