Something was off, and Cory Abbott knew it.
It was small and it was mechanical, and he’d spent a couple weeks trying to figure it out, despite a schedule that wasn’t too friendly for such things. Between June 6 and July 9, Abbott made six starts against only two teams. He started against the mostly left-handed Montgomery Biscuits 4 times in 34 days. Not exactly an ideal, reduced-noise environment in which to test your adjustments.
It was around then that Abbott’s fastball command wavered more than it ever had. In his first eight starts on the year, Abbott had posted a 2.96 ERA with a 46-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But during those six mid-summer games, he walked 18 batters in 31.2 innings. He allowed five home runs. He’d lost three games in a row.
But, again, and more importantly: something just didn’t feel quite right.
“I knew it was something small, but I couldn’t pick it out,” Abbott told me of that stretch. “My fastball was cutting more than usual.”
His season could have gone off the rails then, but Abbott knew his delivery well enough to ask for help. The Cubs, led by minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara, consulted the high-speed cameras that now follow pitchers for every start and every bullpen.
It was determined that Abbott’s delivery had become slightly “over rotational.” His arm was running a little behind schedule, leading to throwing across his body more than usual. His signature execution of high-inside four-seam fastballs had been missing.
Once fixed, Abbott went on one of the great runs a Cubs pitching prospect has had in years.
In his final nine outings, Abbott posted a 1.17 ERA, struck out 68 batters in 53.2 innings, and held opposing Double-A hitters batted to a mere .108/.194/.205 line. He would finish the season with 166 strikeouts, the most for any Double-A pitcher, and the most by a Cubs pitching prospect in more than a decade.
He earned Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors, and, now, our Prospect of the Year honors.
When I ask Abbott to reflect on his season, it’s not the success and accolades that stick out. “It’s being able to make an adjustment, having support in talking and working with the staff, and coming back stronger,” he says.
If there’s a key to Abbott’s success, it has been continuing to evolve. In 2016, as a sophomore at Loyola Marymount, he struck out just 34 batters in 70 innings. He threw only a two-seam fastball and curveball. Everything changed when he spent the summer in the Cape Cod League, where head coach Kelly Nicholson worked hands-on with Abbott to develop a slider. It became his best pitch, led to a second-round selection, and the strikeouts have kept coming faster and more furious.
Abbott began his 2019 prep in Arizona last December at a Cubs mini-camp, and from December into exhibition games in March, threw every bullpen except for one in the Pitch Lab. For the most part, time was spent designing a new change-up. But it was also about building his own video database of what baseline looks like for each pitch.
“In the beginning of the year, I didn’t have my curveball. I called [Sagara] and told him I wanted to put a wanted poster out for my curve,” Abbott said.
Sagara went to work and found that Abbott had unintentionally changed the grip on his curveball during the course of the season. With the slightest move of a finger, Abbott had lost loads of vertical break and a couple miles per hour of velocity. Tweak deployed, Abbott was right back to 83-86 mph, and the slurvy action was gone.
I told Abbott that I’d gone back and watched him in April, and then watched him again during the August stretch. While the pitch mix and pitch quality was largely the same, the pitch usage had changed significantly. Abbott succeeded in both months (2.86 ERA in April, 0.98 ERA in August), but had become far more unpredictable as the season went along.
“It was brought up to me that I was throwing 70% fastballs,” Abbott said, who would then mix in curveballs to left-handed hitters and sliders to right-handed hitters. He was limiting himself. “I joked that I’ll throw 50% sliders and see how that goes.”
Abbott’s slider usage didn’t quite make it to 50%, but it was upped significantly, and he began throwing the pitch to lefties more than he had in his career. It’s noteworthy that in those final nine starts, Abbott held lefties to a .134/.211/.293 batting line, after just .243/.322/.520 over the previous 17. Watch the 0:17 mark of this video, and you’ll see the damage the frontdoor slider does to lefties, tunneling perfectly off his also-cutting fastball.
Congrats to Cory Abbott on winning #Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year!
His consistently dominating season-long stats:
146.2 IP – 3.01 ERA – 1.12 WHIP – 27.8% K – .207 opp AVG pic.twitter.com/PeRw05StIy
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) September 17, 2019
Going into next season, the almost 24-year-old knows what looms: the Pacific Coast League and the juiced baseball. Abbott has talked to Iowa pitchers and knows the ball is firmer, and when he begins to throw bullpens again in December, will only practice with the new ball. If 2019 proved anything, it’s that he can trust himself to make adjustments as he goes.
“I can carry on with how I was pitching at the end of the year,” he says. It’s worth noting that Abbott carries a 23-inning streak without allowing an earned run into next season.
Work will continue on implementing Abbott’s change-up in game action, as he says he’s found a grip and pitch design that’s comfortable. Abbott’s original change-up had movement the Cubs thought didn’t exist in the tunnel of his other pitches. The Cubs changed his grip, but Abbott didn’t like how it felt. The pitch has now reached a point that everyone is happy with the look and feel.
“The key [with pitching technology] is that you have to really know yourself,” Abbott said. “I joked with a pitching coach that it’s only the fourth grip with my change-up. It took me 15 grips with the slider, so we’re ahead of it.”
Tireless adjustments. Constant evolution. Pretty good way to be.