Did Adrian Sampson Get Haircut or Were Long Bangs Merely Aberration?

With all due apologies for the pun-laden headline, this general topic is one I’ve been mulling since at least July 12 as Adrian Sampson continued to put up solid numbers as a starter. The 30-year-old righty defied the perceived odds by getting good results and keeping the Cubs in nearly every game, though I never could shake the idea that he was just barely outrunning regression. He kept proving me wrong, to the point that I was getting ready to write about the changes he’s made to reshape his contact profile.

I’m still going to cover that here, of course, because it remains the defining story of his season to this point. It’s just funny that CI’s Jon Ferlise was texting me data on how well Sampson had done at limiting hard contact, spurring me to start writing in my head just before the 4th inning of Tuesday’s game. After holding the Cardinals scoreless for the first third of the game, Sampson got hammered en route to five earned runs.

The first four batters of the 4th inning put the ball in play at exit velocities of 97.6 mph or higher, with each batted ball being hit harder than the last. After Paul Goldschmidt lined out to open the inning, Nolan Arenado lined a homer at 103.7 mph. Then Nolan Gorman singled at 104.9 and Tyler O’Neill homered at 108.8, after which a pair of softer singles — not necessarily soft, just softer — ended Sampson’s evening.

At 3.1 innings and a game score of just 16, it was easily Sampson’s worst outing of the season. It’s also the second time he’s given up two homers in a game and the second time he’s failed to record a strikeout, though the other time was in one inning of relief during his first appearance back on May 8. Homers have been a huge problem for Sampson in the past and avoiding them this year has been both the key to his success and the source of my concern.

But it’s not as if he was utilizing the same repertoire as before and simply getting luckier, as Sampson explained to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. With the help of Triple-A pitching coach Ron Villone and development coach Thomas Boucher, Sampson reworked the grips on his fastballs and slider while also adding a new changeup.

His slider, which he threw with a four-seam grip prior to last season and now uses a two-seam grip, has three more inches of horizontal break compared to last season and seven more inches compared to the one he was throwing in 2019 (the last year he pitched in the big leagues before joining the Cubs). He’s using his four-seam fastball 36.1 percent of the time this season after abandoning the offering earlier in his career. He’s holding his changeup deeper in his hand, which has killed some of the velocity (85.6 mph this season compared to 87.4 in 2019) and given him a little more gap from his 92.2 mph and 92.7 mph sinker and four-seamer, respectively. The pitch also has more drop than before as well.

Heading into Tuesday’s start, those changes had Sampson avoiding barrels as well as just about any pitcher in baseball. His 23.2% hard contact rate ranked third behind Zach Eflin (21.0) and Ranger Suarez (22.9) among 160 starters with at least 50 innings in 2022. The flip side is that Sampson’s 16.7% soft contact was tied for 72nd among that same group, meaning he may have been walking a fine line.

With Tuesday’s start factored in, Sampson is down to 17th with 26.5% hard contact and 99th with 15.7% soft. While that’s not even close to being bad by any stretch, it’s a sign that his margin for error is thin enough that we’ll probably see water continuing to find its level for him over time. It should also be noted that the Cardinals have been playing some really good baseball and we’re talking about a group of hitters that could terrorize nearly any pitcher.

All that said, the changes Sampson has made are very real and also very effective, so he should remain a better pitcher than he was earlier in his career.

As for how that impacts the Cubs moving forward, well, that depends on how they approach the offseason. With most of next year’s rotation already penciled in, Jed Hoyer should really be focused on accelerating the rebuild by acquiring a top-line starter via either free agency or trade. That would likely put Sampson on the outside looking in as far as a starting role is concerned, but the need for injury replacements and spot starts still provides him with opportunity.

Sampson earns very little relatively speaking and is arbitration-eligible for three more seasons, so there aren’t any financial concerns about keeping him. It’s also possible he could find himself as part of a trade to a team that wants MLB-ready veterans in addition to prospects. However things end up working out, Sampson is a great example of how the Cubs’ development infrastructure isn’t simply about teaching young pitchers to throw harder or add more sweep to their slider.

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