To say that the Chicago Cubs have been fortunate in their never-ending quest for pitching would be wrong.
Sure, they’ve gotten a whole lot out of extra-organizational guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop (to name just four of many), but attributing that success entirely to luck sells a lot of people short.
For example, the front office deserves a ton of credit for targeting and acquiring the types of pitchers that are even capable of making such leaps. And, of course, the players themselves deserve credit for putting in the work.
Just as much, though, the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure – from coaches to certain front office personnel – should be noted. In particular, pitching coach Chris Bosio deserves heaps of love for working his magic. But his work is not done yet.
In 2017, Bosio has no fewer than four new reclamation-lab-rats to experiment with: Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler, Alec Mills, and Casey Kelly. Each has varying degrees of remaining upside and more than one fatal flaw. But if Bosio can work some magic once again, one or more of these four pitches might just turn into yet another hidden gem.
At Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci has an absolutely brilliant read on Chris Bosio and the work he’s done so far with the Cubs. But even better, he takes a look at each of those four pitchers listed, in an attempt to see what the Cubs might have noticed and how Bosio might go about fixing each arm.
After all, one or more of these four pitchers will likely prove crucial to the Cubs chances in the very near term. And if any one of them hits, the Cubs rotation could be boosted for years to come.
Take Brett Anderson, for example. We’ve discussed Anderson quite a bit over the past couple of months, because of all the names listed here today, he’s the one most likely to directly impact the rotational picture this year. As we previously addressed, even without Bosio’s touch, Anderson might be at his best on a team like the Cubs. The gist being Anderson – an extreme ground-ball pitcher (T-2nd in GB% since his debut in 2009) – has almost always been pitching for teams with below average infield defenses. Of course, with the Cubs in 2017, he’ll be pitching in front of what is once again likely to be the best defense in baseball.
That alone might help Anderson find success, but there’s already much more than that. According to Verducci, Bosio noticed a few very important, but fairly subtle things to change about his new pitcher: “The first thing Bosio noticed about Anderson was that he was landing on the side of his right foot—probably a bad habit caused over the years by compensating for his broken foot and bad back.”
Apparently, that habit compromises Anderson’s position at the time the ball is released from his hands. After reworking his landing (at the suggestion and coaching of Bosio), Anderson was able to get his fingers back on top of the ball before release which should generate more life and spin on his pitches. Last season, Anderson’s spin rate (1,974 rpm) was lower than the Major League average (2,241 rpm). So keep an eye out for an increase in that area, because it could help Anderson induce more weak contact and more ground balls, which, with this Cubs defense can be a deadly combination.
And then consider Eddie Butler. If everyone in the rotation stays healthy and effective this season, we might not see a ton of Eddie Butler at the Major League level, but his upside remains as high as any lottery ticket the Cubs have had in years. When we got to know Butler, we learned that he was a former top pick and one of the best pitching prospects in baseball just a few years ago. However, some issues with a cross-body delivery messed with his timing and threw a wrench in his command/consistency. Combine those problems with injury issues, plus pitching at Coors Field, and the Rockies were ready to move on.
Enter Chris Bosio.
In dealing with Butler, Bosio clearly channeled an approach that worked with Jake Arrieta. If you recall, when Arrieta came to the Cubs, he was instructed to pitch in a way that made him comfortable – the cross body-delivery that the Orioles tried to root out. Well, according to Verducci, Bosio told Butler the same thing: “The first thing Bosio did with Butler was to tell him he wanted him be himself—to be comfortable pitching in the style that had made him a first-round pick.”
In addition to a few other changes, Butler will also return to using a sinker (not his four-seamer) as his primary fastball – something the Rockies changed immediately upon drafting Butler. In 2016, nearly 45% of Butler’s pitches were four-seamers, despite the fact that it was least effective pitch (-13.7) and led to an opposing slash line of .374/.434/.617. Even if no other improvements are made, the increased use of his sinker should result in a greater groundball rate as it already has throughout his career – 35.3% (sinker) vs. 29.0% (four-seamer).
Although Anderson and Butler are the two most well-known projects for Bosio to work on this year, they’re hardly the only ones.
There’s also new Cubs righty Alec Mills, whom the Cubs pounced on as soon as the Royals DFA’d him two weeks ago. And then there’s Casey Kelly – the former first Boston round pick who was traded to the Padres along with Anthony Rizzo oh so many years ago.
The former, Mills, is another prospect who hasn’t quite put it all together at the Major League level just yet. But when we got to know him, we (with a h/t to Luke) did notice one thing: some of his numbers/style bears a striking resemblance to Kyle Hendricks. Apparently, when Bosio asked Mills who he considers himself to be the most similar to his response was, “Kyle Hendricks. I think my stuff is similar. I like to pitch off of changing speeds. But nobody’s ever showed me how.” I imagine Bosio licked his lips at that one. Check out Verducci’s post for more on how Bosio intends to make Mills into Hendricks.
And finally, there’ Casey Kelly. According to Bosio, Kelly “may be the most exciting one of all after all is said and done,” which, wow. As we discussed previously, the Cubs front office is intimately familiar with Kelly. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod drafted Kelly in Boston, before the latter two traded for him during the pitstop in San Diego.
Then, reunited in Chicago, the Cubs triumvirate just acquired him for what amounts as the third time (we’ll call it the Anthony Rizzo special, as he followed the exact same path). For Kelly, the Cubs (and really, Chris Bosio) are focusing on improving his deception by moving around the rubber. For far more details on how this will impact his delivery and success, head over to Sports Illustrated.
So with Anderson, Butler, Mills, and Kelly, Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has plenty of experiments to run in 2017. And the trick, apparently, is subtlety.
Whether he’s adjusting a landing spot, encouraging pitchers to throw comfortably, teaching guys how to change speeds, or moving a guy around the rubber, Chris Bosio is the master of subtlety. And with any luck, he’ll hit the target once again.
So be sure to head over to Sports Illustrated and read Vertucci’s full take, Bosio’s full comments, and the entire plan for each of these new Cubs pitchers. And remember, Cubs fans, it only takes one hit to make a huge impact.