In my latest column for Today’s Knuckleball, I wrote about Jose Ramirez’s extended hot streak, and my ambivalence about trusting him despite his continued success. If there is a pitcher version of Ramirez emerging, it could very well be Brandon Finnegan.
Ever since Finnegan came to the Reds as part of last year’s Johnny Cueto deal, he’s had trouble finding consistency. That’s not the worst thing one can say about a pitcher, and implied in that statement is that Finnegan has been effective for stretches. The first impression that he left upon being called up to the Reds last September was a largely positive one. He showed much better control than he had as a reliever for the Royals and, aside from a poor showing against the Cardinals, was decent-to-good in each of his six appearances (four starts).
Finnegan also showed promise right out of the gate in 2016, posting a 2.04 ERA through his first three starts, though 10 walks over 17 2/3 innings foreshadowed the troubles that were to come. In his early starts this season, one of the keys to Finnegan’s success was his ability to get whiffs and grounders on his changeup. Soon, the lefty was barely using his changeup at all, but over his last seven starts he gradually brought it back with a notable usage spike over his last two starts (see graph at top).
In those two starts, against the Diamondbacks and Angels, it became clear why. Finnegan coaxed a combined 18 swings-and-misses on his changeup for a 48 percent whiff rate (per Brooks Baseball). He also induced a grounder on every changeup put in play.
Finnegan has actually had three impressive starts in a row heading into Tuesday night’s tilt with the Mets, but again, there could be a temptation to view this as just another peak in his roller-coaster season. Yet, especially since Finnegan recently made changes to his changeup grip, and given the dramatic improvement in the results he has seen with that pitch, there is reason to think this isn’t just a garden-variety mini-streak. Finnegan told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he talked to teammate Dan Straily about control issues he was having with his changeup. Straily showed him the grip he uses, and Finnegan adopted it.
According to Brooks Baseball, Finnegan’s balls-thrown rate on his changeup over his last three starts has been 34 percent, which is a stark difference from the 46 percent rate he had this season prior to his streak. Add that in along with the improvements in his whiff and ground ball rates, and it would seem that Finnegan’s new grip is making a substantial difference.
It’s hard to pass on a pitcher who has allowed four runs over his last 20 innings with a 29-to-4 K/BB ratio, especially when he is slated for two starts like he is this week. Even with his recent success and the concurrence of a new changeup grip, I would view using Finnegan as a last resort. I’d certainly be more comfortable if he turns in a good performance against the Mets.
Even if he does, it may not be long before Finnegan is dispatched to the bullpen to preserve his innings. He could be a useful pitcher in Fantasy for whatever time is left for him in the Reds’ rotation. Owners just have to carefully monitor both his performance and any news regarding his innings limit.