It was free beer night in Kodak, Tennessee last night, certainly more notable than the Tennessee Smokies’ eventual 7-6 loss. For $10, fans could buy a mason jar, and beer was free between first pitch and the opposing Jackson Generals’ first run. This promotion debuted last August, also against Jackson, but was a bust when the Generals opened the game with a double and run-scoring single. Such is baseball.
Seemed the fans had a better chance at getting their money’s worth on Wednesday, as the Smokies had Cory Abbott on the mound. The 2017 second-round pick had been very good in his first two outings, scattering a pair of runs in 10.2 innings. He’d been really good in that second outing, getting 15 swinging strikes in 85 total pitches.
5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 SO pic.twitter.com/0tKoktP7WZ
— The Southern League (@SLeagueBaseball) April 18, 2019
And Abbott was very solid again on Wednesday: a dozen whiffs on a career-high 92 pitches. The bad news for thirsty fans? Abbott’s lone run allowed came early – a home run to the first batter of the second inning – as fans booed the end of their free beer (though I believe the Smokies poured at no cost until the end of the third).
OK, but back to the prospecting side of things.
We now have a three-start sample to show that, at the very least, Abbott’s stuff is good enough for this important Double-A level. In total: 16.1 IP, 16 H, 1.65 ERA, 3 BB, 17 K. This comes after a really good Spring Training, in which he won a rotation job and led me to move him up from our #16 prospect to #14, which even still looks to be too low.
In a lot of ways, Abbott’s stuff is going to draw eye rolls from those that (rightfully) complain about the Cubs many year pitchability-focused draft style. He’s 88-92 with an all-around unspecial fastball. His body is pretty maxed out. His delivery is simple enough that you don’t see any extra velocity waiting to be unlocked.
Side view of Cory Abbott, Double-A Spring Training start, 3/20. 4 IP, 1 R.
I ranked him too low. Just has a knack for K’s. pic.twitter.com/ybuD75CuHb
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 21, 2019
However, for Abbott, it’s all about his two breaking balls. They’re really good. His slider is waiting for a Pitching Ninja overlay gif with his fastball (he draws the Ninja-term ‘swords‘ from hitters so often). His curveball is his most consistent offering; you can tell he’s most comfortable throwing the hook. He checks the age-old “comfortable throwing his secondaries in any count” box on the scouting report.
Abbott actually showed this most descriptively with his final batter faced, in the sixth inning against left-handed hitter Daulton Varsho. Remember, Abbott had a substantial platoon split last season, but this year, LHH’s are hitting just .045/.125/.045 (!) against the big right-hander. Abbott started Varsho with two inside fastballs, both of which he took for a ball. This was important for him last night, trying to ride his two-seamer back to the inside corner. Abbott is not intimidated by consequence, he routinely challenges hitters inside with his fastball.
But once he went 2-0 on Varsho, Abbott abandoned the fastball. The confidence to throw a 2-0 breaking ball surprised the hitter, who rolled over it foul. Abbott then pulled a slider 2-1 inside into the dirt for a ball. Four pitches, all inside, and he was behind three and one. Next pitch, Abbott changed eye level and corner, commanding a curveball to the high-and-outside part of the zone. And then he ended his outing with a full-count, front-door curve that was his best of the night.
It all made me think of this quote from Jon Lester’s recent Q+A with Jordan Bastian:
“A lot of times when you’re struggling, that 2-0 pitch gets hit out, as opposed to right at somebody. So, a couple of those kind of fall your way and now it’s kind of like, ‘OK, maybe I am halfway decent,’ and you kind of start getting that confidence going and you start throwing that 2-0 pitch with conviction and usually you get good things.”
It’s impossible to talk about Abbott’s strengths without talking about his conviction. It is a core part of who he is, coming at you, daring you to beat him. Without a doubt, at times it will get him into trouble. We wouldn’t be talking about Abbott today if three deep fly balls ended up over the fence instead of a few feet in front of it. Instead, it resulted in one triple and two fly outs. His tendency to live in the upper half with the heat is going to cause home run problems at higher levels; I’m surprised it hasn’t hurt him more so far, to be honest. He runs into trouble elevating fastballs he’s trying to get low:
— The Southern League (@SLeagueBaseball) April 17, 2019
Certainly, some sort of cold streak is coming for Abbott. His 36.8 IFFB% is not sustainable, and when those balls travel farther, struggles will come with it. But there’s no debating that, even without velocity, Abbott’s mix of aggressiveness, tunneling and breaking balls will allow him to keep racking up strikeouts. He’s the type of pitcher that will have to prove his blend of skills works at every level, but so far, he’s grading pretty well on the Double-A test.