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Tampa Bay Rays: Xavier Cedeno’s Breakout Season

By Joe Saunders
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Xavier Cedeno has had a breakthrough season with the Tampa Bay Rays since being acquired back in late April in exchange for cash considerations. Especially for a reliever that had been designated for assignment earlier this season, he has been an extremely valuable reliever for the Rays in 2015. Let’s take at how this once-journeyman reliever has taken the next step in his career.

Through 59 appearances in 2015, Cedeno has posted a 2.16 ERA (3.34 FIP) with a 9.29 K/9 and a 2.81 BB/9 in 41.2 innings pitched. He’s produced a 52.7% ground ball rate and a 87.8% LOB%. He’s also had a solid HR/9 rate of only 0.86. It is always impressive when a reliever manages to strike out over a batter an inning, limit both walks and home runs, and force groundballs. He has been doing it all for the Rays this year.

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While Cedeno still has some work to do against right-handed hitters, he’s still been very good overall. Cedeno was initially brought in to be a lefty specialist and he has shut them down, holding them to a line of .205/.239/.261 with 21 strikeouts against just 3 walks in 23.1 innings pitched against them. Righty batters have hit him to the tune of .261/.354/.406 with 22 strikeouts against 10 walks in 18.1 innings, but even that is an improvement over previous years–they have a .310/.386/.474 line and a 35-23 K-BB ratio against him for his career. Overall, Cedeno has posted a 1.11 ERA with 28 strikeouts and just 5 walks in 24.1 innings in his last 30 appearances. How has he been so successful this season?

As you can tell from this heat map, Cedeno primarily pitched low and away to left handed hitters (low and in to righties) to generate most of his success. He has been primarily a two-pitch pitcher, most interesting has been his curveball usage. Cedeno throws his curveball more than his fastball and 49.3% of the time overall, the highest rate that any pitcher throws his curveball in baseball. Against lefties, he utilizes it an insane 65% of the time. His results say that he is doing so with good reason.

Batters have only hit only .177 against Cedeno’s curveball, striking out 31 times while walking just twice. His groundball to flyball ratio has also been a strong 2.25-to-1. Hitters whiff at it a significant proportion of the time (41.25% of their swings) and have difficulty squaring it up even in heavy usage. Cedeno has always had a good curveball, but maybe Cedeno’s previous teams didn’t realize just how good it is. It hasn’t just been a put-away secondary pitch that works well off of his fastball–even without being set up, it can give hitters fits.

The Tampa Bay Rays have kept up the adjustment that Cedeno made with the Washington Nationals last season, having him throw a cutter as his primary fastball while using his four-seamer and sinker just 7% of the time combined. The cutter hasn’t been anything special, forcing groundballs but allowing a .279 batting average against and just a 7-7 strikeout to walk ratio. He has given up too much hard contact on the pitch–even though he has thrown it less than his curveball, it has yielded more hits than the breaking ball and two of his three home runs. However, all Cedeno really needed was a change of pace from the curveball, and the cutter has been decent enough to provide that.

Xavier Cedeno has been a major contributor for the Rays bullpen in 2015 and will look to continue to be in 2016 and beyond. His curveball-heavy approach has worked to perfection against lefties, and there is even some reason to be optimistic that he can be serviceable against righties. He appears primed to be an effective lefty reliever for years to come and could even take the next step and become a high-leverage reliever. He is the latest example of the Rays acquiring an unheralded reliever and turning him into a valuable commodity.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: Chih-Wei Hu Ridiculous in Playoff Start

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