Sometimes, Michael Rucker tells me, you just have to do it once.
I’m asking him how a guy I saw in Mesa throwing 90-92 mph, then a starter practicing with the Triple-A team, did this in September:
Rucker, the Cubs’ 11th rounder in 2016, points me to a game in Jacksonville in late April. At that point, things were going pretty poorly for a guy who’d otherwise had a breakout in 2017-18. He had a 9.49 ERA after 12.1 innings in 2019 – despite a 15/2 K-BB ratio – on the back of a .432 BABIP. He was throwing pretty well, and exit velocities from hitters were low, but the results were not matching.
“You just hope your organization can filter through that,” Rucker said.
In that April 29 game, Rucker entered the game in the eighth inning with the Smokies up 4-1. He knew his job was to pitch just one inning, which he hadn’t done since 2017.
The leadoff hitter reached on a bunt single. Rucker then induced two fly outs. Then a bloop single to right fell in. And then he just-barely hit the next batter’s jersey. It looked like another bad luck outing. He knew, probably, he was down to his last batter.
“So I just let it eat,” Rucker said. Strikeout.
“Then you see the Trackman data a day after. I was pretty surprised by what it said.”
He’d touched 95 mph twice, it turned out, and he though, “Hey, I can throw hard, and I do have power stuff.”
Rucker explains that in 2018, for reasons he can’t explain, he’d seen an almost season-long dip in his fastball velocity. In a 2017 season that was among the most dominant in the Cubs entire system, Rucker had been consistently able to pitch in the 92-94 range, touching 95. In 2018, he didn’t reach those levels.
The Washington native went into last offseason with a few goals, but one of them was “to get my fastball at least where it was in 2017.”
“My intensity within my throwing program was much better than in previous years,” he said. “I was building up to be a starter.”
Rucker looked good in Spring Training, and I was surprised to see him moved to the bullpen. Now, six months later, it feels to me like great foresight by the Cubs. They saw something that could be unlocked, and after some initial transition difficulty, Rucker found the best stuff of his career. 95-97 mph happened often, and from May 18 to the end of the season, Rucker had a 2.76 ERA, striking out 66 in 58.2 IP, and allowing just a .329 slugging.
“My mindset initially was I was going to do what I did as a starter as a reliever,” Rucker said. “Towards the second half, I was comfortable throwing more and more breaking balls.”
While the fastball velocity was on the rise, Rucker had also been working with the Cubs pitching coordinators on his two breaking balls. They’d helped him choose his 82ish mph “power” curveball over his 77ish mph “show-me” curve.
Another offseason project started as a cutter, evolved into a slider. “It was around middle-to-late May [that] I had my slider where I wanted it to.”
The pitch still lacks some consistency, but when it’s on, it can be the kind of plus secondary offering that would put Rucker over the hump. The best I saw it was a series in Mississippi in early August, where in two outings, Rucker struck out 10 and allowed zero runs in 5.2 innings. The tunnel off his fastball was really locked in.
It’s no secret that 2020 will be a huge season for Rucker. He will turn 26 then, though he’s always been something of a late bloomer. He will likely be in Iowa’s bullpen, a stone’s throw from Wrigley, unless something surprising happens in the Rule 5 Draft.
While I can still see an outline for a starter – he showed a plus change in March and April before losing feel for it when humidity hit Tennessee, and ultimately mostly scraping the pitch – the Rucker of the last six weeks showed Major League relief upside.
And this is where the hope comes that the Cubs investments in pitching infrastructure begin paying off. How can you sustain, or even increase incrementally, Rucker’s September fastball? How can the slider and curve get a little more consistent? He’s close, really close, and pushing these type of prospects over the hump is ultimately what separates the good developmental organizations from their counterparts.
Getting guys like Rucker right is essential for the next era of the Cubs, and here’s hoping we see it – for Rucker and others – in 2020.