Cubs System Now Among Best in Baseball at Improving ‘Stuff’

Spurred by outfits like Driveline and the success of the Astros organization, the Cubs made a concerted effort following the 2018 season to be more aggressive in their pitching development. More specifically, they wanted to improve velocity gains that to that point had been almost non-existent as a result of their player evaluation, selection, and training.

We’re only now beginning to see the results of those philosophical changes, especially with COVID eliminating one whole season out of three in the time since, but the Cubs believe they’re on the right path. The journey hasn’t been without its detours in the early going, though, as a rash of injuries has slowed the overall progress over the past 18 months or so. While that’s to be expected, the Cubs are very much on the high side when it comes to injury rate among their pitchers.

In a joint piece for The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney detailed some of the specifics behind what drives the Cubs’ thinking and what they’re doing to prioritize health alongside stuff. The improvement in that latter category is what has kept the organization from scrapping its developmental map entirely, since Cubs minor league pitchers have been climbing when it comes to velocity, movement, spin, etc.

Some feel the Cubs may have “overcorrected and went too far in the other direction, chasing velocity gains at the expense of basic principles like command and pitch design,” though internal data provides credence for the changes. Per Sharma and Mooney, the Cubs were among the top half-dozen or so organizations to improve their “stuff” from 2019 to 2021. That’s all proprietary and it’s entirely possible the team is cherry-picking one or two metrics, but the growth has been obvious to those watching from the outside.

To that end, velocity has indeed been the primary developmental goal due to those shortcomings mentioned earlier. With that deficiency turned around for the most part, they can now focus more broadly on things like pitch design and command. Keep in mind that this isn’t a matter of having every pitcher being assigned the same goals, but rather the system as a whole identifying both broad and individual needs.

Take Max Bain, for instance. The undrafted free agent just finished his first season in the Cubs org after the pandemic washed out his 2020 campaign. He bought in heavily to Driveline’s teachings and got really into fitness, losing almost 70 pounds while gaining nearly 10 mph on his fastball. Further velocity gains aren’t the issue at this point, but he told Cubs Insider he wants to better maintain that consistent high velo.

Bain also added to MLB-caliber secondaries in a slider and changeup this past season, so pitch shape and movement aren’t necessarily priorities for him. His 13.2% walk rate could certainly stand to come down a bit, so it seems fair to believe that will be a primary area of focus for him this coming season.

Top righty prospect Caleb Kilian, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to be working on pitch design during his first full season in the Cubs system. With a fastball that touches 98 mph and an incredibly low walk rate, Kilian needs to make sure his secondaries can keep hitters honest. The knuckle curve he developed during the Arizona Fall League could well be what he needs to succeed at the MLB level, but it may take a little more time for the pitch to be ready.

Ethan Roberts is someone who may just need a little polish here or there because he’s already throwing in the mid-90’s regularly, has elite spin rate on every pitch, and has maintained single-digit walk rates at each stop. Drafted in June of 2018, right as the Cubs were starting to shift the way they did things, he’s an example of a high-upside pitcher who might have been overlooked due to his small stature. Now on the 40-man roster, the jet fuel in his veins should propel him to Chicago in 2022.

This coming season will tell us quite a bit more about how successful the Cubs’ revamped developmental philosophies can be, but the wholesale changes in the front office may take more time yet. Jed Hoyer said it’d be three to five more years before we can really see how new GM Carter Hawkins can reshape things, so there could still be a few more detours ahead.

At the same time, there should be several more successful promotions for a team that has gotten precious few of them over the past decade or more. Even if we’re not talking about a Cy Young candidate or even a No. 2 starter, an influx of power bullpen arms sure would be nice.

Ed. note: If you haven’t already done so, go back and check out that first link above in which former CI contributor Teddy Eley correctly predicted that the failure to develop pitching could contribute to the need for a rebuild. That in and of itself isn’t entirely novel, but he cited the Astros’ velo increases. That spurred me to ask Jason McLeod about the Cubs’ plans and whether they looked to Houston for inspiration, the answer to which is included in the second link above.

Among a few really cool things that have come from operating this blog for several years now — friendships, connections, untold wealth — I really like being able to follow the little breadcrumbs to see how a story unfolds over time. That’s the case with this topic and I can’t wait to see how things continue to unfold.

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