The first place Iowa Cubs won their third game in a row last night, shutting down the New Orleans Baby Cakes offense for the second straight game. On Monday it was Adbert Alzolay with six lights out innings, but he was bested on Tuesday night by an absolute gem from Colin Rea: seven shutout innings on just 73 pitches.
The start lowered Rea’s ERA to 2.77, third-best in the Pacific Coast League, and he’s been especially fantastic in May, with a 1.93 ERA. But for big league requirements, Rea surely would have kept pitching and attempted the Maddux – it was his lowest pitch total of the season. But Pedro Strop was with the I-Cubs for a relief appearance and it was a throw day for Junichi Tazawa. Those two big league veterans did their job in preserving Rea’s shutout.
(pic via @Dylan_Heuer)
The Baby Cakes managed just three hits against Rea, two of which were infield singles. The 6-foot-5 righty coerced 11 groundouts – two for double plays – against just three fly outs, upping his season GO/AO to a nice 1.69. Rea also had his best command of the season, walking none and throwing strikes at a 73% clip.
Rea, who will turn 29 in a month, signed with the Cubs this offseason in part due to their Triple-A affiliate’s proximity to his family and hometown of Cascade, Iowa. Rea was really forthcoming about his baseball odyssey with the Des Moines Register’s Tommy Birch recently, speaking candidly about being traded off the Padres, returned four days later, undergoing Tommy John surgery, and then a surprise release last November.
Last year, in returning from TJ surgery, Rea really struggled, allowing 14 home runs in 18 games en route to a 5.73 ERA. He told Birch about the grind that season was:
“I don’t remember one time where I felt good on the mound,” Rea said. “It was a struggle for me every time I went out. I had to really learn just how to compete and compete with nowhere near my best stuff every time out.”
However, he found his footing late in the year, with a 1.80 ERA in his final five appearances. Rea is now fully healthy, though Iowa broadcaster Alex Cohen mentioned in a recent start that Rea thinks his velocity could still add a couple ticks. He’s currently sitting around 91 mph, topping at 93, but believes that number can get to 95 this summer.
It’s not velocity, but movement that is responsible for Rea’s success this year. His two-seam fastball, the bread-and-butter pitch, has good armside run that combined with his downhill plane produces a lot of groundballs. He mixes that with two mid 80s offerings: a cutter to right-handers and a split-change to left-handers. Rea is probably most comfortable with his 78-81 mph curveball, a big looping pitch that he commands excellently.
Although he doesn’t notch a lot of strikeouts (19.2%), he manages walks well (8.0%), and doesn’t give up the long ball in a league that is flush with them (0.98 per 9).
The key to Rea’s success has been an uptick in groundball rate. When Rea broke out with the Padres in 2014, he did so mitigating the hitter-friendly California League with a 54.9 GB%. That carried over into a three-stop 2015 that included a 49.5% in Double-A, 47.1% in Triple-A and 46.5% in his Major League cup of coffee. In his struggles last year, Rea’s groundball rate plummeted, just 38% in Double-A before getting it back up to 43.3% in Triple-A.
With Iowa, Rea has that number now up to 50.6%. At that mark, Rea is a viable big league depth option, and pitching like this you can’t help but wonder if he might earn a spot start should a need arise at the big league level.
This is all starting to remind me quite a bit of Kyle Ryan last year with the I-Cubs. Ryan came to the Cubs with some small Major League success on his record after he’d been met with plenty of adversity and a release from his original organization. The Cubs made a minor tweak in their pitching lab to Ryan’s release point, and he had a big 2018 in Iowa. It was all about re-discovering his ability to get groundballs. Then, the Cubs gave Ryan a Major League contract last November to keep him in the organization, where they could use his last option season.
Colin Rea, meanwhile, has two option seasons left, and if this success continues, I would expect he will also find his way to the 40-man roster. Perhaps it’s for a spot start this season, but more likely it’s to provide starting depth in the next two years.
No, this isn’t someone to save the Cubs’ pitching situation, but this is the kind of success in the margins we’re starting to see more from the Cubs pitching infrastructure.