By Jack Etkin
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The innings limit will be gone this season, and Andrew Cashner won't be eased into the San Diego Padres rotation, the way he was last year following an odd injury.
Given his limited experience, words like promise and potential are still relevant when discussing the lofty heights Cashner might reach. But it's no longer a leap of faith to have that discussion. The second half of Cashner's 2013 season provided a glorious glimpse of his talent.
Cashner went 10-9 with a 3.09 ERA last year for the Padres, winning five games both before and after the All-Star break. But he had a 3.81 ERA and 1.268 WHIP before the break and a 2.14 ERA and 0.952 WHIP afterward. Opposing batters' OPS tumbled from .701 before the break to .553.
"There's no doubt that fundamentally with his delivery, his mechanics, his arm action, his stuff, there's a great foundation there for success," Padres manager Bud Black said. "We all know there's a lot more to it than that. But he's got a lot of things going for him right now. He knows that there's still a lot of work to do, and what he did the second half of last year is a snippet of what we think he can do long-term."
During the first half of the season, Cashner said he was unable to get on top of his slider. That pitch improved to some degree during the second half, but more importantly, with the help of Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley, Cashner made a breakthrough with his two-seam or sinking fastball.
"I owe a lot of credit to Darren," Cashner said. "My two-seamer -- I mean, I'm 27, and it's taken me this long to learn how to throw one. I've fooled with sinker grips. I just never had the action or the movement that I wanted."
It's not as if Cashner modified his grip, put a tad more pressure on the ball with a finger or made any adjustment, however subtle. Balsley stresses throwing a sinker to imaginary lanes running toward the plate, starting the pitch in different lanes depending on whether the batter is left- or right-handed.
"We had been working on it for a while," Cashner said. "One day, it was just like, 'There it is. There's that feel.' It made more sense for me to throw to lanes than to the plate, and I think that's why I command my sinker so much better."
Cashner has hit triple digits repeatedly with his four-seam fastball and came up in the Chicago Cubs' organization as a Texas flamethrower -- Cashner is from Conroe, a Houston suburb -- in the mold of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and Kerry Wood, who was briefly Cashner's teammate with the Cubs. Like Ryan and Wood, Cashner wears No. 34.
"He's always been a guy who watched the radar gun readings," Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said. "I think now he figured out how to get quick outs with his fastball, which is huge."
Specifically, he's done it with a two-seam fastball that is something of an anomaly when compared with his four-seam offering.
"Most guys who throw both pitches have better command of their four-seamer," Balsley said. "We both kind of found out he actually had better command of his two-seam fastball. He has more movement, and he started really dialing in on both sides of the plate and both corners with his two-seamer.
"It kind of freed him up as far as his four-seamer. That became, 'Here comes my 98 mile-an-hour pitch. Try to catch up with it.' Whereas he actually pitched with his two-seam fastball to both sides."
Cashner's changeup is his best secondary pitch, Balsley said. His slider was his third pitch last year, rarely used and not much of a weapon. "And now his slider's at least average," Balsley said, "so that's going to help him also."
But pitching off the fastball is the key to mound success. Precisely locating his two-seamer has let Cashner realize that maximum effort on every pitch is not only unnecessary but harmful. He understands the pitching adage that less is more.
Cashner pitched a club-mandated 175 innings last year, making his final start Sept. 22. He moved into the rotation April 20, following five relief appearances to begin the year, getting eased into the rotation after sustaining a two-stitch cut and a lacerated tendon in the webbing of his right thumb, the result of being cut with a hunting partner's knife while they were trimming a carcass. He has one career complete game, a particularly notable performance Sept. 16 at Pittsburgh in which he faced the minimum 27 batters, retiring the first 18 before yielding a single to Jose Tabata. That was Cashner's penultimate start last season, when his two-seam fastball was in wonderful sync.
Indeed, Cashner pitched at least seven innings and allowed three or fewer runs in his final seven starts. While going 2-3 with a 1.21 ERA in that stretch, Cashner had 45 strikeouts and seven walks in 51 2/3 innings.
"When you're in the strike zone and hitters know you're a strike-thrower, they're going to start swinging the bat," Black said. "They're not going to sit back. They're not going to try to get in good counts. They know he was coming at them aggressively, and they got to be ready to hit. And with his stuff, he was producing earlier outs and that again manifested itself into more efficient outings.
"Earlier in his career, I think he overthrew the ball. His command suffered. I think hitters were more patient. He got behind in the count. Then he had to pitch a little bit more defensive. He flipped the tables on the hitter where he became the aggressor the second half of last year."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.