Friday, May 13, 2016

Cherishing Cervenka

There is some degree of luck that goes into how dominant Hunter Cervenka has been as a Brave. You don't throw 10.1 scoreless innings - spaced out over 15 games - from the moment you arrive in the majors without a little luck. You don't give up just one hit in that time frame without being on the right side of the baseball Gods. It takes great fortune to have a 5.6% line drive percentage at any point in the season. But even as we must be reserved in our expectations, Cervenka's start deserves a great deal of praise. Yet, we also much know that when things finally begin to normalize, what do the Braves actually have?

Since coming up from Mississippi in the wake of Daniel Winkler's gruesome conclusion to the 2016 season, Cervenka has been a tough puzzle for hitters to solve. For instance, 14% of the time hitters swing at one of his pitches, they miss. That's 4% over the league average, but it's par for the course since Cervenka signed with the Braves last summer. 17% of all swings were missed by hitters Cervenka faced as a Gwinnett Brave in 2015. That rate slightly increased to 19% this year with Mississippi and the league average is roughly half that. The league average describes Cervenka as a member of the Cubs organization.

As a Brave, things have changed. While it's a very small sample size, Cervenka has relied so much on his slider that he's one of the nine major league pitchers who have both thrown ten innings this year while throwing at least 45% of their pitches for sliders. Cervenka's slider is very hard on lefthanders and it's also thrown very hard. The average velocity on a slider is about 84 mph. While varied sources have Cervenka's slider charted differently, Brooks Baseball (my most trusted source) suggests that Cervenka throws about an 88 mph slider with a high-end of 90.5 mph. That's the definition of a hard slider. Unsurprisingly, the pitch currently has a 2.4 wSL/C - or it's 2.4 wins above the league average per 100 sliders.

Lately, Cervenka has been mixing in his third pitch - a curveball. This is less a concerted effort and more because he has faced an increased amount of right-handed batters. It doesn't have the dominating quality of his slider, but the off-speed delivery helps to keep players from keying in on his fastball. As Cervenka continues to perform well, he will get more opportunities to refine his curveball because of increased opportunities.

It's natural to be concerned about regression to the mean and we are promised an element of that. His expected fielding independent pitching, or xFIP, is currently 3.68 (sample size alert) while his FIP is a bit more exciting with a 2.32 mark. Again, both are warped by the sample size so we have to keep things in perspective. That said, a pair of the best tools used for predicting future success are giving us a range that - at worst - paints the picture of an effective reliever while at the top end, shines the spotlight on the possibility of Cervenka being an outstanding reliever. The truth will reveal itself as Cervenka logs more innings.

A couple of Baseball Prospectus' stats are also very kind to Cervenka. FIP in Context, or cFIP, currently is graded as an 88 for Cervenka. The stat, which uses 95-105 as the average and anything over it as below average to Bud Norris territory, means that Cervenka's 88 cFIP has been above average so far and on the cusp of greatness. DRA, or Deserved Run Average, is another good predictor of a pitcher's real performance and future ERA. For Cervenka, the mark is 3.38.

When you pool together all of the numbers, it's hard not to get too excited about Cervenka. It's as if you force yourself to remember it's just 15 games and 10.1 innings over and over. On the other hand, let's not get too bogged down with the expected regression to the mean. Cervenka will certainly allow a run at some point, but that won't change the fact that he has been an absolute find by the Atlanta Braves scouting department and coached up to unlock potential his former employers like the Red Sox and Cubs ultimately failed to see. That deserves major kudos from all involved.

Of course, since I praised him so richly, he's destined to struggle tonight. Then again, by mentioning that I expect it, the Baseball Gods will flip the script once more. I'll cross my fingers.

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