Around 3:00 pm yesterday, the Chicago Cubs announced that pitching prospect Jen-Ho Tseng was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the second time in his career (previously 2014), which was awesome and well deserved after a great season at the upper levels of the minors.
But while Tseng was in town to get some pre-game recognition for that award yesterday, he got a little bit more than he (or anyone) expected: “I just sat down with him in my office,” manager Joe Maddon said via CSN Chicago and MLB.com. “I said: ‘I guess you’re here in town to accept an award.’ He just looked at me and I said: ‘How about you start tomorrow night’s game instead?'”
Now THAT is freakin’ cool.
So, yes, news broke yesterday that righty Jen-Ho Tseng was going to make his Major League debut with the Cubs today – in the thick of a heated, three-team, mid-September divisional race – so let’s get to know this pitcher before he takes the mound tonight and also discuss why the Cubs might’ve made this move right now (which, I’ll admit, was quite puzzling at first).
— MBDChicago (@MBDChicago) September 14, 2017
First, the history lesson: Tseng, now 22, was signed by the Cubs as an international free agent out of Taiwan back in July of 2013 for a really healthy $1.625 million bonus. In his first full professional season, 2014, Tseng pitched with the Kane Country Cougars (Cubs low-A team at the time) to a great deal of success: 2.40 ERA, 3.28 FIP. He didn’t strike out a ton of batters (21.3K%), but he walked less than 4% of the guys he faced, en route to winning his first Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with the Cubs.
He progressed through the system over the next few years, ultimately reaching Triple-A earlier this season. At the highest Minor League level (which tends to be a hitters paradise), Tseng posted a 1.80 ERA, with a less encouraging 4.25 FIP. But don’t be too disappointed by those peripherals, because that’s sort of Tseng’s style.
In four out of his five stops in the Minors, Tseng outperformed his peripherals by quite a bit while continuing to command the ball extremely well. And if that particular profile reminds you of a certain 2016 NL Cy Young finalist from the Cubs, you wouldn’t be wrong.
“This guy is a really good command pitcher,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He throws high 80s to low 90s [mph], with a little more velocity, kind of like [Kyle Hendricks] and has a really good changeup.”
Now, don’t go crazy. Because, while Tseng’s profile is similar to Hendricks, it’s fair to say that what Hendricks has done in the Majors also represents his absolute, dream scenario ceiling. In addition, Hendricks was generally a more highly regarded prospect along the way – though I will add that Luke did just rank Tseng as the Cubs sixth best prospect.
In terms of profile, Tseng is certainly a command/control/get-weak-contact type of guy. And that’s the type the Cubs have targeted quite a bit over the years. Bonus: Tseng’s groundball rate was always pretty mediocre, but he dialed it all the way up to 53.1% at Triple-A Iowa in 55.0 innings this year.
So now that we know what makes the Cubs believe Tseng can succeed at the Major League level, lets’ try to find out why now was the time to find out.
If I’m reading Maddon’s comments correctly, the move was primarily about stabilizing the bullpen, by way of Mike Montgomery jumping back in with the relievers. Of course, there’s probably a bit more to it than that.
For one, Montgomery has already reached 116.1 IP this season, which is 16.1 IP more than his previous career high in the Majors. Given that he may join the rotation for a full slate of starts next season, I don’t think the Cubs were interested in pushing him too far this year. For another, the struggles of fellow left-hander Justin Wilson probably need to be mitigated a bit. Although, I should point out the fact that both are left-handed is almost irrelevant, as both are full-inning, high-leverage types (well, in theory). For still another reason, the hope is that Jake Arrieta will be back soon-ish, which was going to bounce Montgomery from the rotation anyway.
And finally, it sounds like the Cubs are hoping for some “lightning in a bottle,” excitement – and it’s not that crazy. Tseng is a good pitcher and a legitimate prospect. He may simply succeed because he’s good. BUT ALSO, young pitchers sometimes succeed in their Major League debuts because their opponents have very little experience/information on them before jumping into the box. And for a guy like Tseng, who can throw “four, five pitches” for a strike, according to catcher Taylor Davis, knowing what to expect can be quite difficult.
As of now, it sounds like this will be a one-and-done start for Tseng, but it depending on how it goes (and what Jake Arrieta is up to), he may get more than that. There’s also a chance he’ll stick around and try to make an impact out of the bullpen, as well.
Yes, this was a very surprising move at this point in the season, but, given Montgomery’s future, Wilson and the bullpen’s present, and the upside of a one-off start for a prospect, I think I can understand the decision.