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Cahill changing things up, reemerging back in Oakland

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Trevor Cahill continues to be a revelation for the Athletics. Oakland took a flyer on the former All-Star turned beleaguered and well-traveled veteran after discovering Jharel Cotton‘s need for season-ending Tommy John surgery in Spring Training.

After signing with the A’s on March 19, it took the 30-year-old 29 days to get himself big-league ready. Since, he has reeled off four solid starts, three going in the book as Quality Starts, leading to a 3-1 team record including a 2-0 victory over the Orioles Saturday night at the Oakland Coliseum.

Cahill (1-1, 2.25 ERA) struck out a career-high 12 batters Saturday. And while he was setting up the Oriole hitters with his patented sinker, he was knocking them down with something of a change.

Coming into this his tenth big league season, Cahill carried a sinker usage percentage of about 53 percent — that is down to just 44.3 percent this year. He had used his No. 2 pitch, the changeup, about 19 percent of the time — that is up to 28.8 percent.

Bruce Maxwell, who caught Cahill for the first time in a regular season game Saturday, said he had worked with him during Spring Training and has noticed something other than the sinker upon which he has built a healthy major league career:

“Trevor’s changeup is probably one of the best changeups in the league, and I stand behind that wholeheartedly.”

The changeup has been key to Cahill’s revival in Oakland and integral to his severe reverse righty-lefty splits.

In his three 2018 starts prior to Saturday’s, Cahill had allowed just three hits to opposing left-handed swingers — he allowed two more Saturday– who were batting .111. Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter acknowledged that shift prior to the game citing the changeup as the determining factor.

Showalter’s club got the changeup it was looking for, early and often. But looking for it and hitting it are two completely separate things, as the Orioles proved.

Twenty-three times Baltimore bats were waved at the Cahill changeup. Sixteen times it yielded zero contact, including seven to finish at-bats. When the change was put in play, all three times (three foul balls), it yielded outs. All told, Cahill’s new weapon produced an 0-for-10 night.

The hurler said:

“I just kinda came out there with that mentality today where, in a close game like that, I was just going to compete with my best pitch. It was working so I kept going to it.”

Of his 98 pitches Saturday, Cahill threw 28 changeups — right on his season percentage.  The Orioles knew it was coming, Showalter said so, and that, as Maxwell said, is only further evidence of the pitch’s legitimacy:

“It’s amazing. That goes to show that even if somebody comes to look for the pitch, if you can execute [hitting it] it’s a very, very hard task to do. Hitting the fastball is hard enough but when you’re trying to hit the changeup, especially his changeup — he’s a very difficult opponent to face.”

Manager Bob Melvin, who coached Cahill in 2011 before he was traded to Arizona, has seen that pitch develop and compared Cahill to a Cy Young winner and three-time All-Star he managed while he was skippering the Diamondbacks:

“I liken it to — he was fastball-curveball when I was here last — I had a pitcher by the name of Brandon Webb in Arizona that was a sinker-baller, curve-baller. He came up with a changeup and all of a sudden he became a strike-out pitcher. It’s looking like Trevor is kinda on that pace.”

Strikeouts have never been a huge weapon for Cahill. His career-high for a season is 156, set in 2012 when he threw 200 innings. He is averaging just 6.7 K’s per nine innings in his 286 career big league games, a respectable number to be sure but nowhere near the pace he is setting for himself in 2018.

After his 12-whiff performance Saturday, Cahill has now sat down 24 batters in 21 innings. He is on pace to get about 30 starts. Even if he averages just five innings per start the rest of the way, at his current rate (10.3 K’s per nine), he is on pace to strike out about 195.

While the changeup is the biggest difference between 23-year-old Cahill (when he was last in an Oakland uniform) and (current) 30-year-old, the wily vet was quick to point to the rest of his arsenal. Seven of Cahill 12 strikeouts Saturday, including two of three in the first inning,were finished off with the change,\ but all were set up by the sinker, which has looked sharp as ever, and five more of his third strikes came on the sinker-cutter combination.

At this point in his career, Cahill is willing to let whatever pitch is working on a given day be his No.1 weapon, as he did coming out of the bullpen Saturday confident in the changeup. He understands that the sinker is still his bread and butter, and that occasionally he will also have to lean heavily on the curveball:

“There will be games where [the changeup is] not there and I’ll throw more curveballs or four-seamers. But, right now, I’ll just go with what’s working.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.

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