OAKLAND — During his final month with the Kansas City Royals last season, Trevor Cahill — a career starter — was relegated to the bullpen. While adjusting to life as a reliever, the sinkerballer refined another pitch: The change up.
When he returned to the Oakland Athletics for his second stint with the team this winter, he brought that newly-effective pitch with him, and is throwing it at a higher rate than he has in his entire career.
“I’ve never honestly seen it not work really well, personally,” said catcher Bruce Maxwell. “Just from seeing him pitch and everything, I’ve never really seen it, but today, it was electric.”
Cahill threw that dropping change of pace 28 times, striking out a career-high 12 in six innings. Although he had nothing to do with the decision in Saturday’s 2-0, 12-inning win, he definitely left a better impression than his last two outings, in which he’d allowed six earned runs in 11 innings.
“I threw it a lot when I was actually in the bullpen,” Cahill said. “That was kind of my pitch, so I just came out there with that mentality today, where, a close game like that, I was going to try and just get beat with my best pitch. That was one of the reasons I threw a lot of them.”
The scouting report this year on Cahill has been fairly consistent this year: He’s using his change up 28.8% of the time, compared to a 19.5% career usage, and he threw 28 in 98 pitches on Saturday. Still, he got swings and misses at the pitch 16 times out of the 28 he threw.
“Trevor’s change up is probably one of the best change-ups in the league. I stand behind that, whole-heartedly,” Maxwell said. “It’s an equalizer for him. He throws it whenever he wants. He’s got really good command of it, and a lot of people have a hard time hitting it. Even if you’re looking for it, it’s very difficult, and so the fact that he can throw it whenever he wants to, and he can command it whenever he wants to, is a big thing.”
Seven of Cahill’s 12 strikeouts came via the change, and of the three times his change up was put in play, all three resulted in groundouts.
“There will be games, I guarantee you, where it’s not there, and I’ll throw more curveballs, and maybe more four-seamers, but right now, we’re just kind of going with what’s working,” Cahill said. “I feel like it’s always had pretty good depth to it. I haven’t gripped it differently or anything, but some games, it moves a little bit differently, and I think that’s just how sinker guys are.”
Cahill’s previous career high for strikeouts was 10, which he did three times, the last time coming against San Diego on June 14, 2013.
“I had a pitcher by the name of Brandon Webb, in Arizona, that was a sinkerballer, and curveball,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He came up with a change up, and then all of the sudden, he became a strikeout pitcher. It’s looking like Trevor’s kind of on that pace. He’s got the same look as his fastball, or his sinker, but obviously a little bit less, and moves down in the zone and ends up being a swing-and-miss pitch for him, so that’s a huge pitch for him.”
Cahill’s whiff rate at his change up — the percentage of swings by hitters that result in misses — has remained fairly consistent throughout recently (in the 40s three of the last four years), and he came into Friday’s game with a 41.5% whiff rate on the pitch this season. Against the Orioles, though, he had a whiff rate of 70% (16 swings and misses on 23 swings, with three balls and two called strikes).
“You want to do what you can, but Cahill obviously brought his game, too, tonight,” said Orioles DH Mark Trumbo, one of two Orioles to not strike out against Cahill. “It was slim pickings out there. Not a lot of pitches to hit … He mixed everything. He’s got a really nice sinker, his changeup is swing-and-miss, falling off the table. It’s tough to make a good decision. Good for him.”