It isn’t often that you find a pitcher that was a closer in his college career that is later successfully converted to become a professional starting pitcher. That may well happen in the case of Cincinnati Reds prospect, Tony Cingrani. His story is unconventional and makes it hard to get a great feel for his true potential. After transferring into Rice University in 2010 as a starting pitcher, Cingrani had an extremely rough beginning. In that first season with Rice he went 1-0 in six starts and was saddled with an 8.59 era. However, the Rice coaching staff was unwilling to give up on him.
They moved him into the closer role early in the 2011 season and this began to elevate his confidence level. Cingrani flourished in the new role making 32 appearances with a 1.74 era and boasting 66 strikeouts in 57 innings pitched. His dominant ways caught the attention of several major league teams and led him to be drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 3rd round and 114th overall in the 2011 MLB amateur draft. So after successfully transitioning into the bullpen role for Rice it would seem obvious what his future role as a professional would be. If you guessed relief pitcher like I did, then you would be wrong just like I was. Yes, that’s right; the Reds organization saw fit to move Cingrani back into a starting role.
Frankly Cingrani’s professional career has been too easy. After drafting Cingrani in June of 2011, the Reds immediately put Cingrani to work in rookie level ball at Billings Montana. And the numbers speak for themselves. He made 13 starts and pitched 51.1 innings with a sparkling 1.75 era. His k/bb ratio of 80/6 shows complete dominance over his competition. The only downside to his starts was that he averaged only 4 innings per start, so he hardly ever factored as the pitcher of record in the games in which he appeared. Even that fact is somewhat misleading as he gained strength over the season and was able to stretch longer into games. He was able to get up to 6 innings pitched per start 2 out of the last 3 games he pitched, which is nearly doubles his starts early in the season. This impressive body of work was enough to catch our notice as we put him at number 336 in our Baseball Instinct 360° Top Prospect List. Additionally he forced his way into the Cincinnati top 10 coming in at number 9. So let’s take a look at what it is that is allowing Cingrani such great success in professional ball.
Cingrani success is highly predicated on his fastball. And his fastball is definitely a good one. His velocity typically will sit around 93 mph, but it can get up 97 mph when he needs it. This pitch is in and around the strike zone very consistently, which explains the stingy 6 base-on-balls in his 51.1 innings pitched. He has the ability to throw to both sides of the plate while keeping it within the strike zone; a promising marker to be sure.
However, the most important aspect of his fastball is that it doesn’t come in straight. It has a tailing action that moves down and away from right-handed batters, another promising phenomenon for a left-handed pitcher.
His off-speed stuff consists of a below average change which he seems to feel very comfortable throwing. He is able to throw this pitch for strikes, but needs to improve his delivery so that the pitch has a more deceptive quality to the batter. Cingrani also has a below-average slider that he is diligently working on. It has good breaking action that moves away from left-handed batters. He is not as comfortable with this offering yet and lacks good control of the pitch.
However, he has been extremely focused on improving it. Cingrani lacks good off-speed offerings and this is where he really needs to improve his game.
There is a lot to like with the pitching mechanics that Cingrani uses. His lower body is the foundation for his pitching delivery. Cingrani uses a long stride and really drives off the mound. This momentum towards home plate allows for the high velocities that Cingrani can achieve. His front foot consistently lands in the same spot and this is key to allowing him to maintain command of his pitches. The long stride and strong drive towards the plate is clean and consistent. His upper body is in synch with his lower body, although the Rice coaches had to work on this aspect of his delivery in 2010. His strong mechanics help to minimize his chance for injury. Cingrani’s good size suggest that he could handle starting pitcher’s workload.
Standing at 6’4” Cingrani has a natural downward plane to the ball and that is nicely complimented by the tailing action of his fastball. These 2 factors should lend themselves to a lot of ground balls for Cingrani and should help avoid giving up damaging long balls. His ground ball rate of 54% and allowance of only 1 home run during the 2011 season are the natural outcomes of his height and pitching action.
With such a good fastball, Cingrani doesn’t need stellar off-speed offerings to be successful. However, he opens up to the batter and drops his glove early in the pitching motion and this allows batters to pick up the ball early. Of course, Cingrani needs to be able to locate his off-speed pitches, but he can partially mitigate that by masking the pitch. By learning to disguise his off-speed pitches, it would become much harder for hitters to pick them up.
As stated in the beginning of this article, it is hard to get a feel for the true potential of Tony Cingrani. He has moved between starter, closer and then starter again in less than a calendar year. Therefore, there has been some very large changes in his workload and the expectations that go along with them. While he obviously excelled in his first year of professional ball, it should be noted that he was 22 and that made him older and more physically developed than much of his competition. Because of the massive amount of changes that he experienced this last year, Cingrani currently lacks the arm strength to handle a starting pitchers workload. Obviously he came a long way, in his 1st year of professional ball, so there is much room for optimism. Likely Cingrani will begin the 2012 season in single-A ball, but even that level of competition may not be enough to truly challenge Cingrani. Ultimately Cingrani needs to face hitters that can be patient and force him to be consistent with his off-speed pitches. His off-speed pitches and arm strength will determine if he can remain a starting pitcher. His stuff is good enough for him to be a high leverage reliever in the major leagues, but early indications are that he could be a legitimate starter.
Before we can truly evaluate and project Cingrani, we need to see him work within a solid and defined role. We need to see him at a more advanced level of competition and have more consistent success with his secondary offerings. The eventual outcomes of Cingrani range from middle of rotation starting pitcher, to middle innings bullpen reliever, to flame out in double-A ball; and there really is no certainty to any of them. But he has some key things that work in his favor. With a high-velocity, lively fastball and a consistent and clean delivery, Cingrani has an excellent foundation with which to build on. At 22 years old there likely isn’t a lot of physical development left for Cingrani. However, the upheaval in his college career, may leave open the possibility that his pitching arsenal and pitching mentality has not been allowed to fully bake. He may need a little more time than the usual 22 year-old college pitcher to learn and develop his craft. If he is to live up to the potential that his 1st year of professional ball suggests, then he needs to move up the organization quickly. Spending an entire year at each level simply is not fast enough. The speed at which he moves up levels will be the key indicator of whether or not he is going to be successful. He has a long ways to go and a short time to do it, but the unconventional story of Tony Cingrani is one that could make Reds fans quite pleased.
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