How Can Cubs Further Improve Pitching Development? Throw Fewer Strikes

I’ve got a fun drinking game for you: Take a bottle of booze out to any youth baseball tournament and do a shot every time you hear someone tell a kid to “Just throw strikes!” If you survive the early round of games, you win. Bonus points for not chucking the bottle at that obnoxious grandpa over there who keeps telling Johnny to get his elbow up when he’s batting.

Thing is, the secret isn’t throwing more strikes. It might actually be a matter of throwing fewer, but let’s establish a little more context before we go there.

The Cubs have made legitimate strides when it comes to developing pitchers, implementing wholesale philosophical changes from what was a much more conservative approach a few years ago. They’re drafting players with higher ceilings even if it means more risk and they’re more targeted when it comes to mechanical changes and pitch design. Of course, none of that would matter without the right people in place to make their vaunted Pitch Lab work.

Though it’s achieved an outsized reputation and conjures images of a top-secret room inside a bunker in Mesa, the “lab” isn’t even really a location. I mean, yeah, they’ve got a setup at the team’s spring facility that they use frequently. The real results come from having a tech setup that can be replicated at any of their affiliates, then having the people in place to interpret and implement the resultant data from that tech.

As Sahadev Sharma laid out for The Athletic, the changes the Cubs have made to their personnel, both the player and front office side, are fueling a surge in the organization.

“In general, I’m really proud of our pitching infrastructure,” Jed Hoyer said. “We’ve worked really hard in the last two or three years to build that up. Craig Breslow, Casey Jacobsen, and James Ogden have done a fantastic job of really reshaping our pitching culture. Tommy Hottovy, Daniel Moskos, and Chris Young do a great job in the big leagues. We’ve really turned a corner. I think we’re going to develop a lot of pitching in the next few years.”

The most notable addition to that infrastructure is GM Carter Hawkins, who was brought over largely due to his experience in a pitching-rich Cleveland organization. While he has admitted that it’s too early yet for him to have had a meaningful influence on the Cubs’ overall development success, he’s got a very good idea of where additional improvements can be made.

“There are so many different things that go into the development of a pitcher,” Hawkins told The Athletic. “My mental model is you can either fix the ball or fix what’s driving the ball — in terms of fixing what the ball is doing in midair in terms of going harder, going in a different direction, or going to a specific spot.

“Or fix how the body makes the ball do that. I think the Cubs have been really, really good, maybe great, at the ball part of it and are continuing to get better at the body part of it.”

One potential avenue the Cubs could make improvements is to throw fewer strikes, or, more accurately, to better sequence pitches to disguise balls as strikes. As laid out in a fascinating thread by Twitter user Tieran (@Tieran711), the way to improve strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t working in the zone more, it’s getting more chase.

Having the best pure stuff doesn’t matter if there’s too much differentiation between, say, a sweeping slider and a tailing fastball. Because the hitter can pick up the difference easily out of the hand, they can spit on that slider and eventually force the pitcher to come back into the zone with something hittable. As Tieran posits, the solution is to improve deception rather than control.

That fits both aspects of the mental model Hawkins lays out below because it can be a matter of both mechanics and pitch design. Whether it’s developing a new pitch to improve tunneling, tweaking a grip to create a different shape for an existing pitch, or ensuring that a pitcher maintains a more consistent arm slot, there are several ways to improve results.

As of this writing, the Cubs’ pitching staff ranks 22nd in both walk (8.7%) and swinging-strike (10.6%) rates, and they are 23rd in O-Swing (31.4%). This might be the point where you raise your hand to offer a note that the staff looks a lot different now from what we’ve seen most of the season, not to mention how injuries have created a revolving door. I’d add that it’ll be different still come next season, but let’s take a moment to look at one product of this infrastructure in particular.

For as good as he’s been this season, I believe Justin Steele could get even better results by implementing Tieran’s strategy. Steele’s 10.2% walk rate is easily the highest on the team among pitchers with at least 20 innings and both his SwStr (9.2%) and O-Swing (27.8%) are second-lowest and lowest, respectively. I’m not smart enough to know exactly what the answer is, but I can see he’s got nearly even splits and his fastball is most frequently the culprit when he gets in trouble.

Even though it’s far too simple to suggest that he improve and increase the usage of his changeup, I keep going back to that as a potential game-changer. Having an offspeed pitch would better disguise his fastball and help him to keep hitters off of his breaking stuff. Just a thought.

This is almost certainly something the Cubs are already working on, so I’m not necessarily trying to uncover some hidden gem. That said, I think it’s a cool wrinkle that most people might find counterintuitive and that bears monitoring as we continue to follow the exploits of the developmental pipeline. At the very least, it gives you something new to yell at the ballpark.

Just disguise your pitches better!

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