Yesterday, Michael highlighted five free agent starting pitchers Jordan Bastian had brought up as potential fits for the Cubs (given their self-created constraints). While we know the Cubs are unlikely to offer these five the highest dollar amount, you can bet part of the sales pitch is that a year with Tommy Hottovy, Craig Breslow, The Pitch Lab, and the rest of the Cubs pitching infrastructure team will help rehabilitate value for the next contract.
I know in the past, the Cubs have gone to their free agent pitching targets with specific plans on how the organization would go about honing a pitcher’s arsenal for increased success. I thought it might be fun to play armchair pitching coordinator and create my own sales pitches for these five.
So here’s me, playing pitch man for the Cubs …
What makes him unique? Among the 96 pitchers to throw 750 pitches in 2020, Williams had the 20th-lowest release height (5.5 ft). And among pitchers that have a low release height (say 5.75 feet or lower), Williams had the sixth-longest extension. That combination is rare.
How didn’t his last team do a good enough job of emphasizing that? With the combination listed above, generally speaking you’d ask a pitcher to throw his hard stuff up in the zone, where the difference between his actual and perceived velocity will play the best against hitters. Williams didn’t do that enough with his four-seam fastball, as I see using the pitch highlighter on Baseball Savant:
His 144 (roughly, a third) highest four-seam fastballs: .247 wOBA allowed, 29.7 whiff%
His 148 lowest four-seam fastballs: .486 wOBA allowed, 11.1 whiff%
How can the Cubs emphasize it better? This is a flat Vertical Approach Angle guy, pitching too often like a steep one. Let’s cut out the low four-seamers, especially given that on low-in-the-zone pitches, we can go with a sinker with above-average vertical drop.
Also, I notice Williams has thrown just 99 curveballs in three years. We-the-Cubs love curveballs, specifically the knuckle-curve, our Pitch Lab’s speciality. But maybe, just maybe, Williams discovered something himself late last year yourself? He’s thrown 14 curveballs with more than 2350 rpm in his career, and half of them came in September 2020. Let’s build on that.
What makes him unique? Since 2014, Porcello has the seventh-lowest BB% of all pitchers to throw 600 or more innings during that time. But it’s Porcello’s ability to command five pitches independently all at playable levels that separates him from the pack.
How didn’t his last team do a good enough job of emphasizing that? In 2016, Porcello’s Cy Young season, he threw all five pitches at least 12.8% of the time. In 2020, he threw just two pitches at a rate above that number. Porcello’s weapon was his versatility, but the Mets devolved him into a sinker/slider pitcher. This was particularly true against right-handed hitters, who saw just those two pitches 81% of the time. Are we surprised they then slugged .493?
How can the Cubs emphasize it better? I believe in re-diversifying Porcello’s pitch mix, but that also means trying to get some of those weapons back to their past glory. For instance, we need to find the 300 rpm that was lost from your curveball, which also resulted in the loss of a half-foot of vertical drop. Do you hear we have … a Pitch Lab?
What makes him unique? It’s led every single scouting report since Rodon’s college days: plus-plus slider. Prior to 2020, Rodon had never allowed a batting average over .200 or a slugging percentage over .300 on the pitch in a single season. The lowest the single-season whiff rate had ever been was the great 38.9% mark as a rookie.
How didn’t his last team do a good enough job of emphasizing that? No criticisms for the White Sox here, it’s just clear the slider wasn’t in the same shape upon returning from injury. Rodon also faced the unlucky assignment of facing almost entirely right-handed lineups in every 2020 appearance.
How can the Cubs emphasize it better? For re-discovering the slider, we’ll have Rodon work out of our … Pitch Lab (seriously, I imagine these sales pitches are a broken record on that front). The release point is definitely something to look at, as you can see it was clearly a little different in 2020 (both compared to years past, and also relative to the other pitches):
This is most important for just getting the slider where it needs to be again. Trying to re-establish the lost velocity is one thought, but more importantly, it just needs to tunnel off the rest of his arsenal. I’d expect the Cubs to re-introduce the sinker as well.
What makes him unique? I think a new baseline for what makes him unique will have to be established as we begin to understand where the velocity is now. As Michael pointed out yesterday, Foltynewicz lost about six mph on all his pitches in 2020. When he was designated for assignment last July, Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “We didn’t see enough increase in things, in the velocity. That’s who he’s been, a stuff guy for the entire time we had him, and the stuff hasn’t been there.” So …
How didn’t his last team do a good enough job of emphasizing that? I will say, they quit on him fast. After the DFA, Folty was outrighted to the Braves alternate training site, where there were some reports of a stuff increase, but apparently not enough to earn another opportunity. I think we simply don’t know everything that happened there, much less why it happened.
How can the Cubs emphasize it better? Come closer to where you grew up, closer to your support structure, to a place that has the need for innings. If the stuff is there, you just work on making sure the slider again becomes the dominant pitch it was in 2018. If the stuff isn’t there, play with being weird: he has a sinker/changeup combination that tunnel well, which is literally the hallmark of the Cubs current rotation. Learning to pitch that way with the tutelage of Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies might be the best sales pitch there is. It’s not like there aren’t examples of pitchers learning to make hay after losing velocity.
What makes him unique? Our expectation is that ,while Archer will make a full recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, it might be the impetus for him to move from a stuff guy to an execution guy. Luckily, the Pirates began the work to smooth this transition in 2018, as Archer went from a three to five pitches, adding a sinker and curveball to his fastball-slider-changeup mix.
How didn’t his last team do a good enough job of emphasizing that? We need to go back and look at the 34 barrels Archer allowed in 2019, a rate in the bottom 7th percentile of the league, and do what’s necessary to reduce that number.
Obviously it’s just too much middle-middle, and in general, Archer’s GB rate dropped from the mid 40s with the Rays to 36% in 2019. With a pretty high release point, it’s important that Archer live in that lower third, and I think a drop in command in 2019 led to the real problems.
How can the Cubs emphasize it better? Both the sinker and the curveball were good ideas by the Pirates, but they need to be improved. The curve spin is there, but Archer was well below-average in active spin rate with the pitch (i.e., he generates a good amount of spin, but that spin isn’t actually contributing much to movement). In the Cubs – have you heard about this? – Pitch Lab, that knuckle-curve success could be a selling point.
The sinker was also a good idea, but we have to be honest about what the pitch is: in 2019, among 287 pitchers to throw 100 or more sinkers, Archer had the sixth-least drop in vertical movement. That’s okay in a vacuum, but it means the location has to be more precise. And that’s the across the board message here: precision needs to be Archer’s hallmark moving forward. You can live with the 2019 walk rate; but the 2019 home run rate’s gotta go.