It’s hard to take everything we hear about the scrimmages happening at Wrigley Field at face value since we can’t always see much of what is actually happening. So while I was excited when the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales referenced Duane Underwood’s “sharp” curveball on Sunday, as Brett touched on in the Bullets, there was still some doubt at the moment about what precisely was being reference.
But then Cubs Pitching Coach Tommy Hottovy was asked about Underwood’s breaking ball evolution, and you can just read the excitement from his gushing response:
Asked Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about the progress Duane Underwood Jr. has made with his curveball (has worked on spike grip since last year), and Hottovy spoke for two and a half minutes straight about it.
Here was his answer… pic.twitter.com/IgC0W4DS4N
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) July 13, 2020
Sharp curveball, indeed.
There is a lot in that answer, and I want to unpack it with a tour of Underwood’s development history, and his present standing. Underwood is out of options, meaning he must now stick in the Major Leagues or be waived (and I’m telling you, he’s not going to make it through waivers). So if the Cubs feel like a potential jump in his ability has happened, you can expect they will give him every chance in the world to stay in Chicago. In that sense, Sunday’s six-strikeout performance may have already won Underwood an Opening Day job.
It’s certainly a bit weird to still be talking about Underwood’s development eight years after he was drafted, but you never know when lightning will strike. Underwood always seemed a guy that got more praise from the Cubs brass – particularly Jason McLeod – than his on-field results demanded, as McLeod was clearly a believer in the stuff profile. Underwood had a big body that seemed it had an extra couple mph waiting to be unlocked, and he could spin a curveball. But back then, and for the majority of his time in the organization, the curveball was the big, low 70s looping variety that Underwood would use.
At some point in 2018, Underwood’s changeup firmly passed the curveball as his best (and favorite) secondary. In his one start for the big league Cubs, Underwood threw 21 changeups and 15 curves. In the following offseason, Sahadev Sharma reported that Underwood was using a new grip for his curveball, the spike-knuckle curveball that then-minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara and Hottovy had a penchant for teaching. As I watched a few of Underwood’s starts in Iowa from April last year, I honestly didn’t notice a huge difference. The curveball was now about 75-80 mph, up from the 75.05 mph he averaged on the pitch in that big league start, and it featured a similar vertical break. If anything, he was using it less.
By the time Underwood was made a full-time reliever last June, it appeared he’d all-but-dropped the curveball entirely. The fastball had jumped to 94-96, even touching 98, and his command of the change was good enough that he was throwing it in all counts. I watched about a dozen of his June and July outings, and Underwood would go most outings without throwing the curve entirely. Based on my eyeballing, it was down to about 5% usage.
I wanted to go back and look for the exact moment it changed. On July 26, in an outing against the Round Rock Express, Underwood touched 98 mph and recorded a strikeout with the curve for I believe the first time since he’d become a reliever. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that he was called up to the Majors a little more than a week later. He appeared in the bigs for three outings, including that 2-inning 6-strikeout effort, and threw five curveballs out of 53 pitches.
But when Underwood got back to Iowa, clearly something had happened behind the scenes in Chicago. He told Iowa broadcaster Alex Cohen on the pregame show to their August 19 game to expect he’d begin throwing his curveball more. That night, Underwood started and ended his night with 80 mph curveballs, both a bit sharper than the ones I’d seen pre-Chicago, and the latter for a strikeout. I also noticed that Underwood was a little less arm-dependent on his delivery, sitting in his backside a bit more (something you’ll see Hottovy talk about in the quote at the top), and it seemed to create a little more consistency in fastball velocity. That 3-game cup of coffee had clearly made a huge difference.
Underwood was called back up to the bigs in September, and would throw his curve 17.2% of the time, a far cry from where it was earlier in the summer. He also was averaging 82.3 mph with the pitch, harder than any single curve I saw in any minor league game. The pitch wasn’t particularly effective, he threw it mostly for balls and it was ranked on a per-pitch basis as his worst pitch in 2019 by FanGraphs. But he was clearly tinkering on the fly.
Now I have my doubts going forward that Underwood will be able to fully succeed at the big league level. There are consistency issues with his stuff, and I don’t believe at 93-95 mph that his fastball is quite big-league caliber. I think it needs that 95-98 he sometimes reaches. The change is really good, but leaves him a bit susceptible for home runs. He’s right on the border. There’s real reason to believe the curveball, if he’s developed it to be an average-to-plus offering, could be transformational. One more pitch in the tunnel, one more thought in a hitter’s head, is going to help all three pitches. It would help him stick.