Bullpen Hopeful Duane Underwood Jr. Used Improved Curve to Notch 6 Strikeouts in Sunday Scrimmage

Somewhat buried behind the news of Jon Lester’s first start of summer camp was the two-inning relief performance of 25-year-old righty Duane Underwood Jr., who was responsible for six of the 26 strikeouts Cubs pitchers notched in Sunday’s scrimmage. Once one of the top pitching prospects in the system, battles with injuries and inconsistency led to Underwood performing at a mediocre level from 2016-18 at Double- and Triple-A.

Since prospect rankings are all about projection, a mix of what have you done for me lately with what can you do for me in a few years, Underwood’s advanced age and protracted development dropped him from the radar. Drafted in the second round out of Pope High School in Marietta, GA all the way back in 2012, the 6-foot-2 righty is now in his ninth year in the Cubs organization and has made only the smallest ripples in Chicago.

Most teams might have given up on a guy after nearly a decade, but the Cubs are hoping a permanent move to the bullpen will finally allow Underwood’s latent talent to shine. It wasn’t until he had made 10 starts for Iowa through May 26 of 2019 that he was officially converted to a relief role, at which point his career arc grew much steeper. Despite having never registered a double-digit K/9 mark over at any level where he’d registered more than 8.2 innings, Underwood posted a gaudy 10.47 over 81.2 Triple-A innings.

He nearly matched that mark by striking out 13 batters over 11.2 innings with Chicago (10.03 K/9), walking only three (2.31 BB/9) during that same stretch. Pitching in relief allows Underwood to dial up the effort and pump the fastball at around 95 mph, a couple ticks higher than his average as a starter, thus setting up the change and curveball to be more effective.

That latter pitch was apparently on display Sunday at Wrigley as the righty struck out the side in his first inning of work before sandwiching a walk between three more K’s in his next frame.

This isn’t the first time Underwood has struck out six batters in two innings of work for the Cubs, though the previous performance came in a game that actually mattered. The changeup factored heavily last August as he whiffed all six batters he face, but that breaking ball may well confuse hitters and lead to more called strikes moving forward. To wit, half of the K’s in Jordan Bastian’s improvised scorecard were written backwards.

Photo of Jordan Bastian’s scorecard.

The only blemish on Underwood’s line was a walk to David Bote, but you’ll take that when all six others he faced went down on strikes. Even though some might like to point out that he wasn’t exactly facing a murderer’s row of hitters — Hernán Pérez, Albert Almora Jr., Victor Caratini, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Bote, and Nico Hoerner — they’d have a flimsy argument at best. This can’t be expected to happen on regular basis, nor is it a fluke.

“To see the evolution of where his curve is now, compared with 2-3 years ago, you don’t make changes like that unless the pitcher buys in,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Monday, per Mark Gonzales of the Tribune.

Hottovy gushed over Underwood’s hard work this past offseason and during the shutdown, praising his willingness to get stronger physically and to strengthen the curve. Some players can make those changes very quickly while others don’t see the benefits for several months or years, and one of the challenges for those in that latter group is in not giving up on themselves or on a certain pitch that isn’t coming along as quickly.

Underwood already had a very good shot at making the Cubs’ 30-man active roster to open the season, if only because he’s out of minor-league options, but performances like this make the decision much more obvious. Beyond the big strikeout numbers, Underwood’s ability to pitch multiple innings helps to lengthen the bullpen in support of a rotation that won’t be expected to go deep into games early on. Maybe not even late in the season.

Another important factor is that Underwood’s mastery of the curve and change would make him equally effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. His splits have traditionally been somewhat neutral, though he was actually much better against left-handed batters last season at Iowa. While that trend didn’t continue after he was called up, you can’t put much weight on 51 total batters faced.

You can, however, put weight on Underwood’s talent and experience, not to mention the added motivation of urgency. That word’s been watered down like budget-conscious Kool-Aid as Theo Epstein stressed it and the rest of us ran with it ad nauseam over the last two seasons, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less real. Underwood really has no choice other than to perform on the diamond, which can happen when you apply enough pressure.

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