An ode to Tony Cingrani

Dilip Vishwanat

The Reds have a full rotation, but an injury to Johnny Cueto is giving us a peek at a mesmerizing pitching prospect.

I tuned into the Marlins/Reds game last week to prospect-ogle the Marlins' Jose Fernandez. The Reds were starting Tony Cingrani. I'd heard the name and read the blurb on him in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, but it was Fernandez who was supposed to blow my mind. Cingrani might as well have been Wade LeBlanc.

Except it was Cingrani who became one of those players. As in, one of those players who makes you wonder why he wasn't on the cover of Sports Weekly six weeks running. One of those players you butt in to mention when someone's talking about single-payer health care at a cocktail party. Now he's on my short list of most fascinating young pitchers in baseball.

Trevor Bauer? He's like a strange prom date that you half-remember. Don't know what I saw in that guy. That was almost, like, 100 to 200 days ago. Pffft.

Cingrani's minor-league stats over the last two seasons are mesmerizing:

Year Age Lev ERA GS IP H HR BB SO
2011 21 Rk 1.75 13 51.1 35 1 6 80
2012 22 AA-A+ 1.73 25 146.0 98 9 52 172
2013 23 AAA 0.00 3 14.1 3 0 2 26
3 Seasons 1.62 41 211.2 136 10 60 278

Cingrani wasn't exactly unknown before the season (he was the Reds' No. 3 prospect, according to Baseball America, and the No. 82 prospect in baseball), but he wasn't on the mind of anyone but prospect hounds and Reds fans. When he was called up, it wasn't exactly a Strasburg-level event. It wasn't a Bauer-level event. It wasn't even a Corbin-level event, at least when it came to the national hype. Cingrani was a guy filling in for Johnny Cueto, and I figured we'd see him again in September, or maybe 2014. If he came back at all.

Cingrani's stats are gaudy enough, but he's just as impressive when captured in moving images on the TV or computer, too. He's not some prospect fling you stick with until he loses his command and/or sick flow, like Bauer. He's more than that. So in preparation of his start on Tuesday, a couple of things about him:

1. Cingrani pitched at Rice through his senior year

He didn't just decline to come out for the draft as the junior, he wasn't even sure if he was still going to be at Rice as a senior. From Baseball America:

Cingrani was so bad as a Rice junior that he asked his coaches if they wanted him to come back for his senior season.

By way of The Baseball Cube, here's his college line in 2010: 22 innings, 43 runners, 21 earned runs, and 13 strikeouts. We like to talk about pitchers like Ricky Romero and Tim Lincecum using words like "broken." That's cute and all, but Cingriani is a reminder that at every level of the amateur ranks, there are legions of pitchers figuring out that they'll never be good enough to pitch professionally. Not in the majors, not in the minors, not in Spain.

Cingrani was one of those pitchers.

2. Cingrani's coaches at Rice tinkered with his mechanics and put him in the bullpen

Then he improved enough to get drafted in the third round. That seems like a standard-issue story. Pitcher is messed up, coaches coach, and everything gets better. Except the university is kind of the story, here. A list of the recent Rice pitchers drafted in the first round:

Joe Savery, 19th overall pick in 2007, 0 career WAR
Wade Townsend, 8th overall pick in 2005, 0 career WAR
Philip Humber, 3rd overall pick in 2004, 2 career WAR
David Aardsma, 22nd overall pick in 2003, 2 career WAR
Jeff Niemann, 4th overall pick in 2004, 4 career WAR
Matt Anderson, 1st overall pick in 1997, -1 career WAR

It's probably unfair to label Rice as a program that produces first-round busts, just because first rounds are supposed to be filled with busts. It might mean something, or it might mean as much as If seven first-rounders named "Steve" busted. Seven first-round disappointments in a row for Rice doesn't necessarily have to correlate with any sort of larger point. It could still be in one-of-those-things territory.

But if you're going to pick a program that's likely to fix a junior and quietly send him into the draft as a bargain of a senior, Rice might be at the bottom of the list. They might not deserve a bad rep when it comes to young pitchers, but I'm not sure if they've ever done anything until Cingrani to deserve a good rep.

To the Reds' credit, they identified a starter right out of the draft, and they've used Cingrani in the rotation exclusively.

3. Cingrani's delivery is fun to watch

The obligatory GIF:


A slow-motion version:


And a whole bunch of stills from that pitch:


Deceptive fellow. Hiding the ball well.


There's the ball! Start your timing mechanism now!


Whoops. The ball is gone again. And here are the next four frames in a row to show you how late the ball comes out:


That's the kind of deceptive delivery that can make for a successful left-hander who throws 84. Instead, Cingrani lives in the low-90s, and he can touch the mid-90s at times. It was deceptive enough to post goofy strikeout numbers in the minors. It's been deceptive enough in a couple of outings to look good in the majors.

Dylan Bundy's coming one of these days, as is Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler. But when it comes to pure prospect porn, Cingrani is about the best thing going in the majors at the moment. There's no guarantee that he's still around when Cueto comes back, so get it while it's hot.

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