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Looking Closer at Brandon Finnegan

Former Royals pitching prospect Brandon Finnegan is now penciled in as the #2 starter in Cincinnati. How good can he be this year?

Brandon Finnegan is the #2 starter in Cincy. As hard as that is to believe, he actually has good potential.
Brandon Finnegan is the #2 starter in Cincy. As hard as that is to believe, he actually has good potential.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

You might remember this guy from postseasons such as 2014. He was wearing Royal blue back then and was called up late in the season to be a shutdown lefty in the 'pen. He helped them get to the World Series, only to lose to Madison Bumgarner (and 24 other guys) and the #EvenYear team.

He looked good in that small MLB sample, but the Royals sent him back to AAA in 2015 because they had no room for him in their rotation. He did pitch out of the bullpen a little for the Royals, but was shipped to Cincinnati as part of the big Jhonny Cueto trade at the deadline. He was sent to Louisville at first for some additional seasoning as a starter before being called up to the parent club late in the year. In four starts spanning 21 innings, he put up a disappointing 4.71 ERA. He did put up 20 Ks in that small sample, though.

We'll take a deeper look at that small sample of starts and at his arsenal in a bit. But first, I just want to mention that, after a terrible spring (10.05 ERA in 5 starts), he managed to "win" the #2 starter job in Cincinnati. That speaks mostly to the poor quality of the Reds' rotation right now, but at least they trust him to turn things around. Anthony DeSclafani probably would have been my choice, but that's not really important. What's important is that Finnegan has a guaranteed job for now and we want to know how good he can be?

As I said, we only have 21 innings of starting experience at the MLB level to look at. His relief experience is certainly worth looking at, but velocity and control are very different when starting than relieving (velocity drops and control becomes much more important). Here are some tables with stats from his starting and relief experience:

As Starter 21 4.71 20 0.256 0.322 0.525 2.14
As Reliever 27 2.67 25 0.172 0.29 0.308 1

As Starter 22.50% 7.90% 14.60% 5.32 3.85 46.70% 21.70% 33.90%
As Reliever 23.20% 13.00% 10.20% 4.39 3.71 61.20% 21.40% 27.90%

It's clear that, like nearly all pitchers on earth, he's much better in short bursts. He gave up way too much hard contact (34% Hard % and a 0.525 Slugging!) as a starter, but did show some positives. He was very unlucky with home runs allowed. The league average HR/FB is about 10%, so he was an outlier there. xFIP brings that back to average and a 3.85 isn't too bad there. His GB% wasn't too bad and his K%-BB% was definitely above average, and was even better as a starter. His K% didn't drop much as a starter, which is a great sign. His velocity is also above average for a lefty.

Control has been an issue for him in the past, with >10% walk rates in AAA last year. His small sample of starting last year, however, showed improved control with a league-average walk rate. His strikeout rates have always been strong (in the lower 20s in AAA and MLB). His overall swinging strike rate last season was a solid 9.7%. Let's dive deeper into his arsenal to see what we can learn.

Pitch # of Pitches 2015 SwStr% GB%
SI 521 6.70% 58.20%
SL 159 17.60% 37.50%
CH 51 17.70% 25%
FA 20 5% 66.70%

He clearly relies heavily on his sinker, and it's not a bad pitch. It gets above average swinging strikes and ground balls. His slider is fantastic at getting swings and misses and his change-up is too. His fastball was used so little, it's hard to draw much of a conclusion there. The nice thing about pitch-type peripherals is that they take very little time to stabilize and become useful. That's very helpful when we have very few innings to work with. The numbers in the table include his relief outings, but it's the best Fangraphs has to offer.

What all of this means to me is that Finnegan has definite sleeper potential. I assumed everyone was hyping him up after his success in relief, but apparently not because I just picked him up in a deep dynasty league. It seems no one wanted him. I think he could pull off a 3.6 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 1.25 WHIP this season. Watch his walk rate, which is what caused problems this spring (4.4 BB/9), along with general hit-ability. He's got the all important combo of grounders and whiffs, so he can overcome those issues. He comes with lots of risk and will have an innings cap (92 innings in 2015), but don't lose track of the #2 starter in Cincinnati. Tschus!