Going into last year, I really liked Brandon Finnegan as an end-game sleeper. He came up and showed a ton of promise in a small sample out of Kansas City’s bullpen in 2014 and then was traded to the Reds in 2015, where they decided to try him in the starting rotation. Finnegan sports a 4-seam, sinker, change and slider combination with slightly above average velocity from the left side, which is a starter’s arsenal.
There was no breakout in 2016, however, as Finnegan pitched unevenly – and that is being kind. In fact, according pitching peripherals, Finnegan’s 3.98 ERA was very lucky – 5.19 FIP and 4.87 xFIP. He had a WHIP of 1.36 and posted a sub 2.00 K/BB rate. He also surrendered hard contact at a 35.9% clip, the groundball rate that helped make him successful as a reliever disappeared – 0.97 GB/FB rate, and there was a homer problem (1.52 HR/9) to go with that increasing flyball profile.
So why is he welcomed into the Villar Village? Why do I still like him despite all these negative indicators?
Finnegan is just 23 years old and he showed signs of major improvement in the second half. In the second half, he struck out over a batter per inning. This was not mere small sample noise or a hot streak. Finnegan made a change to his pitch mix and began throwing his change-up much more in the second half. After losing faith in the pitch and throwing it only passingly in the first half, Finnegan increased its usage in August to 13.89% and then 22.92% to close the year.
In fact, if we dig a little deeper, he consistently starting using his change-up over 10% starting on July 29, 2016. If you start on that date, in his final 60.2 innings of the season, Finnegan had 2.23 ERA with 9.49 K/9. The homer issue became less pronounced – down to 1.02 HR/9. Not only did he start throwing the change-up more and get better results, Finnegan was also successful at getting ahead of hitters (60.7% F-Strike% compared to 54.6% F-Strike% for the season) and generating more swings outside the zone (32% O-Swing% compared to 28.3% on the season).
Now, even in this sample, the peripherals were not as kind – with a 3.92 FIP and 4.18 xFIP indicating that Finnegan’s 2.23 ERA was quite lucky. Finnegan still walked too many hitters (4.15 BB/9) and his LOB% of 87.2% was unsustainable. I do wonder if Finnegan’s time as a reliever has better equipped him to handle situations with men on base.
If we take another step, and I will acknowledge that this could small sample noise, but on August 25, 2016, Finnegan upped his change-up usage to another level and that was consistent through the end of the season. In a 30.1 inning sample from that date through the end of the year, Finnegan struck out 11.57 per 9 innings with a 2.37 ERA. Although the peripherals were still higher, they were much more on board with Finnegan as a quality pitching option – 3.25 FIP and 3.83 xFIP.
I would be remiss if I did not admit that there are warts with Finnegan – even during his best, limited stretches, he was still 4.00 ERA pitcher according to the peripherals. He has had success in the bullpen before and the Reds could easily transition Finnegan back to a reliever, if he struggles early this year.
However, Finnegan made huge strides over the course of his MLB starting season against pitchers of both handedness and it coincided with a pitch mix change. I am hopeful that he can continue to adapt his game and mix going forward, which will lead to further growth. I think Finnegan’s long-term upside is a Gio Gonzalez type of pitcher. He will always struggle with walks and as a result, his peripherals will never look great, but the strikeouts will be there. For this year, I think Finnegan could be a much cheaper version of Robbie Ray (Finnegan’s ADP is 337.19 compared to Ray’s 222.59) – albeit with a regressed K-rate. Plus, I think given the variety of his pitch mix, Finnegan might have the upside to match Ray’s potential since Ray does not have a third pitch, never mind a fourth.
My projection: 190 IP, 3.77 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 195 Ks.