Minor Adjustments Make Big Difference For Cashner

ZEBULON, N.C.—Showing improved control of a plus fastball, a power breaking ball and an improving changeup, Cubs righthander Andrew Cashner demonstrated on Monday why he's been one of the best pitchers in the minors early in the 2010 season.

In seven innings, Cashner struck out five, walked two and allowed just two hits and one run, which was unearned, in Double-A Tennessee's 2-1 victory at Carolina, a Reds' affiliate.

Cashner, the Cubs' first-round pick out of Texas Christian in 2008, nearly no-hit the Mudcats. He gave up a an infield single to the first batter he faced, shortstop Kris Negron, on a weakly chopped ground ball that traveled 45 feet down the third base line. The second hit came in the seventh inning on a routine ground ball booted by the third baseman that was scored as a hit.

"He's gotten progressively better every outing," Tennessee pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said. "He's thrown well all three outings. His first outing in the fifth inning he kind of lost his outing. Last outing in the sixth and seventh inning he let it get away from him a little bit. And then tonight he pitched through the seventh inning. He's been very consistent with being able to throw three pitches over the plate for strikes. He works down in the strike zone, got a lot of ground balls tonight, and he's been attacking the strike zone with three major league pitches."

Despite outstanding arm strength with the ability to reach the mid- to high-90s, Cashner hasn't been a prolific strikeout pitcher. In 100 innings last year between high Class A Daytona and Tennessee, Cashner struck out 75 batters, or 6.7 per nine innings.

This year, things have been different.

Through three starts, Cashner, 23, is third in the minors in strikeouts with 25 in 17 1/3 innings. No, it's not a huge sample size, but he's struck out 40 percent of the batters he's faced.

So what's the explanation for the increase in Cashner's strikeout rate? There are two main reasons why it's up this year:

1. In his final spring training start, Cashner moved to the third base side of the rubber, which has helped him get better angle toward the plate with his slider.

2. As a closer at TCU, Cashner had little need for a changeup. Now, it's developed into a legitimate pitch that he's able to throw for strikes and get the occasional whiff.

"I think my three pitches are more polished," Cashner said. "I've always had a good fastball, but I've moved over to the other side of the rubber, and I think my slider has more depth. And I've started striking guys out with my changeup this year. I'm just trying to stay aggressive with my fastball. I mean, I'm not going out there trying to strike 10 guys out, but when they get two strikes, I try to bury them away."

Cashner's slider is a breaking ball with movement similar to a power curveball—some scouts refer to the pitch as a slider, others as a curve—but it's a sharp-breaking pitch that he can spike at 82-85 mph. Moving to the third base side of the mound, Cashner believes, has given his slider more deception, helped the pitch stay over the plate longer and also helped him get out front on his fastball.

"I think it's helped him moving over on the rubber," Lewallyn said. "He creates a little better angle, where especially righthanded hitters aren't comfortable with that ball coming in behind him. It's given him a little better angle on his slider, and then being able to throw a changeup for a strike. It gets him into more two-strike counts, and now he's learning to locate his fastball a little bit better. It's just a combination of a lot of things. It's just learning how to pitch."

Change Of Pace

The progress of Cashner's changeup has been another positive sign. The Cubs told Cashner to work on his changeup last year, and while it's still his third pitch, his ability to throw it for strikes helps keep hitters off his other two power pitches.

With a 1-0 count in the first inning against Carolina left fielder Yonder Alonso, Cashner got Alonso to whiff at an 84 mph changeup and foul off an 83 mph changeup on the next pitch. That set up Cashner for the strikeout on the next pitch, a 96 mph fastball that Alonso watched sail by the outside corner.

"My changeup's come a long way in the last year," Cashner said. "I started throwing it last year and it's turned into one of my pitches I feel like I can throw last year any time in the count.

"When I was a closer at TCU, I didn't really ever throw it. It's something I've always worked on, but I feel like I've got a good feel for it right now . . . Trying to complete myself as a whole as a pitcher, I feel like it's a huge pitch for me—that way they can't just sit on my fastball. Like tonight, I didn't throw my breaking ball early, it wasn't very good, but late it got a lot better, so I had my fastball/changeup those first few innings and then my slider kind of came in there."

Against Carolina, Cashner's fastball sat at 90-94 mph. He touched 96 five times—all for strikes—and he's been clocked as high as 98 last year. Cashner's bread and butter is his power four-seam fastball, but he also mixed in about eight two-seam fastballs on Monday.

"I thought I threw the ball real well tonight," Cashner said. "I threw more two-seams than I usually do and getting good sink on my fastball. I didn't have a lot of strikeouts tonight, but they were putting the ball in play early. That's what I want. I want balls in play early. My goal tonight was four pitches or less, and I felt like I did a good job on that."

Under Control

Cashner's also shown better control than he did a year ago, when he walked 3.8 batters per nine innings. He's thrown 64 percent of his pitches for strikes this year (last year the major league average was 62 percent), which is why he's walked just four of the 63 batters he's faced, or 2.1 per nine innings.

"He can climb the ladder with his four-seamer," Lewallyn said. "If he falls behind in the count, he feels like he has a better chance of throwing the four-seamer for strikes than the two-seamer, so he'll use it then, but he's learning to use both of them in the right situations."

Aside from a four-pitch walk to Alonso in the fourth inning, Cashner showed solid control on Monday, which combined with a free-swinging Carolina lineup led to fewer strikeouts than his first two starts but very efficient innings. He threw five pitches in the second inning and needed just eight pitches for a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth.

"That's my game plan every time," he said. "Once I get two strikes on a guy I try to bury him, but they didn't really allow me to get them to two strikes tonight. They were very aggressive, and I was just trying to work my fastball to both sides of the plate."

One more promising sign for Cashner was his ability to hold his velocity deep into his start, as he hit 96 twice in the sixth inning. The Cubs put Cashner on a tight pitch count last year, and he made only one start of at least five innings for Daytona before getting a longer leash upon his promotion to Double-A in July.

"At the beginning of the year last year, it was very frustrating for me because I was on such a low pitch count," Cashner said. "I just had to grind through it. It's not too big of an adjustment for me because my first two years of junior college I was a starter. My pitch count's gone up this year, so whenever you know you have a higher pitch count, it's easier to go out there and throw strikes."