It was early last week when the good men of Infield Fly put up a poll, encouraging Jays fans to cast a vote for their favorite of the four main starting pitchers. Judging by the use of tags on this very website, you'd have to assume my answer would be Brett Cecil1.
It's true I am a big believer in what Brett Cecil can do, but I'm quietly becoming concerned with that he is doing. Yes, he's tied for the team lead with 12 big wins. Unfortunately, outside a superlative month of May, he hasn't pitched especially well at any point this year.
That isn't entirely true. Cecil's ground out an excellent number of innings, driving his WAR up to 2.4 for the year. But of the four starters, Cecil trails in most key component stats. I last wondered about the Cecil condition at the end of June, a month in which his strikeouts nose-dived and his fastball seemed flat. A bunch of home runs and a lousy strand rate shoved his ERA over 5 and his W-L to 2-3 for the month.
July saw Cecil pitch, well, worse. His strikeouts slunk lower while his walks nearly doubled. Much to Cecil's benefit/credit, he kept the ball in the ballpark and the gloves of his mates, riding a very low BABIP and a sky-high strand rate to a 1-0 record and a sparkling 2.23 ERA. Arbitrary end points as they might be, two consecutive bad months is two consecutive bad months.
Brett Cecil improved his won loss record in August (going 3-2) by pitching much better, nearly as well as his great month of May. The walks fell off sharply, allowing Cecil to weather the normalization of his home run rate, his BABIP, and his strand rate. His ground ball rate went up again and, while not nearly as high as in the minors, nearly reached the excellent 50% plateau.
Again, I don't mean to diminish the contributions of Brett Cecil. Outings like his start against the Rays, in which he lasted 8 long innings after giving up 5 early runs are invaluable and the reason innings pitched is included in all worthwhile counting stats. It speaks to the fluky nature of starting pitching, where an ill-timed home run can turn the context of an entire start completely around.
To me, it is another example of the triumph of process over result. Comparing Cecil's last two starts is a pretty stark reminder of the cruel nature of his profession. A little bad defense behind you, one poorly located pitch at the worst time and you've got a loss and 5 runs tallied against you. Some people might not care that you cruised for the next 5 (lower leveraged) innings, but dancing between the raindrops for 6 innings — like Cecil did against the Yankees — is a very dangerous game. But one is a win and one is a loss, only the optics say any differently.
What am I saying here? I'm a little worried about Cecil moving into next year. I worry he has a better chance of taking a step back rather than forward. I worry his new love for the change up might turn him into a fly-ball thrower, most unfortunately in a homer haven for right-handed hitters. Basically, I'm worried that the not-great months outnumber the good.
All the talk of the 4 great starters gets the blood moving but at least two of them still have much to prove. Let us learn from the very immediate past and remain guarded (just a little) in our optimism.
1 - The correct answer is Team Romero.
Splits courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. Image courtesy of Reuters.