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Tim Cooney, first-pitch strikes, and second chances

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Tim Cooney flopped in his MLB debut, but the lefty will likely get more chances to prove himself a viable back-end starter.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the St. Louis Cardinals called lefty Tim Cooney up to the majors to make his big-league debut.

First, there were roster machinations to go through. Cooney was not on the St. Louis 40-man roster, so he could not be on the active 25-man roster. The Cardinals created an empty spot on the 40-man roster by placing Adam Wainwright on the 60-day disabled list. But the active 25-man roster was still full, so St. Louis demoted Cody Stanley to Triple-A Memphis and placed Cooney on the roster in the spot Stanley left empty.

After all that, Cooney pitched quite poorly. The southpaw lasted just 2 1/3 innings because he allowed on seven hits and a walk. Eight of the 15 Phillies Cooney faced reached base safely. One homered.

It's easy to focus on results. DIPS suggests we shouldn't be too terribly alarmed about a start that includes seven hits in less than three innings. It wasn't the pitches that Phillies struck which most concerned me; it was the number of pitches that Cooney threw which Philadelphia hitters took for called balls.

As you might recall, I'm a big proponent of the first-pitch strike. It's the most important pitch for a pitcher and a hitter because the 0-0 pitch occurs in every plate appearance and whether it's a ball or strike has a dramatic impact on the likely result of the pitcher-batter face-off. Consider Cooney's first pitches on Thursday:

  • 87 mph FB: Ball
  • 90 mph FB: Ball
  • 89 mph FB: Ball
  • 88 mph FB: Ball
  • 80 mph CH: Strike
  • 88 mph FB: Ball
  • 87 mph CT: Ball
  • 80 mph CH: Ball
  • 87 mph FB: Ball
  • 73 mph CU: Ball
  • 81 mph CT: Ball
  • 87 mph CT: Strike
  • 80 mph SL: Ball
Cooney threw a first-pitch strike to 2 of the 15 batters he faced. Entering play on Thursday, MLB hitters had batted .263/.371/.422 after getting ahead 1-0 in the count compared to .221/.264/.340 after a first-pitch strike—a 189-point gap in OPS. Last year the 1-0 vs. 0-1 split was 200 points of OPS.

The first-pitch strike is very important for all pitchers, but it's even more so for Cooney. The southpaw is straight out of central casting for the part of Crafty Lefty. Cooney doesn't have elite stuff, so he is more dependent on location than a pitcher like Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha. Whereas Martinez or Wacha can get by with a mistakenly placed fastball because of its mid-90s velocity, Cooney can't with his high-80s four-seamer.

Eric discussed this in his Future Redbirds Top 25 profile of Cooney:

The lack of any elite offering that Cooney can lean on when he doesn't have his best stuff makes him susceptible during those outings when his command is a little off or his fastball just doesn't have it's best pop. When he's got his best stuff, he can dominate a really good lineup (like his 1 hit shutout against a talent-stacked Iowa Cubs squad) but when it's not there, Cooney can get hit pretty hard. I watched a couple of starts where he struggled last season, and when he's getting hit hard, he tends to try and nibble further and further to the edges of the plate which does him no favors: It leads to more walks and ever more baserunners.

During his MLB debut on Thursday, we saw the downside of Cooney. He didn't have much pop on his fastball. More importantly, he struggled to locate pitches. With Cooney's stuff, this was a recipe for trouble against the Phillies. Imagine if Cooney had faced an average MLB lineup or even a good one.

Cooney can pitch better and it looks like he'll have to. Unless the Cardinals opt to end the Cooney experiment after only one start and go with Tyler Lyons (who, in all honesty, I'd have promoted over Cooney to fill Wainwright's spot in the rotation), there isn't another option with respect to starting pitchers on the 40-man. Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales are the only other possibilities. According to Brian Stull at STL Baseball Weekly:

  • Garcia threw a 54-pitch simulated game on Thursday and may pitch in an extended spring-training game on Tuesday.
  • Gonzales is slated to start throwing again today (if he hasn't already). General manager John Mozeliak indicated that Gonzales likely would not throw in a minor-league game until May 10 at the earliest.
Thus, the Cooney experiment must carry on for at least a handful more starts. The Cardinals and fans will see just what the club has in the lefty. If Cooney can bounce back and grow as a big-leaguer, he might establish himself as a viable back-of-the-rotation starter. If not, there's always Lyons until Gonzales is ready.

FanDuel

SBN has entered into an exclusive partnership with FanDuel regarding daily fantasy baseball. A part of that pact includes them paying me to promote FanDuel. Matt Adams is scalding hot. Entering play on Tuesday, Adams was hitting for a .232 BA, .283 OBP, .357 SLG, and .279 wOBA. Over the last three games, Adams has rapped out seven hits. He is now batting .304/.338/.493 (.355 wOBA). The rumors Adams dissenters spread about his death have evolved into the usual criticism about the gaping gap in his platoon splits. The Cards face a righthander tonight in A.J. Burnett. Ride the Big Mayo train while it's good and hot. You can play FanDuel here.