Building Something Special: The Story of Max Bain's Journey to 99 mph

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Building Something Special: The Story of Max Bain’s Journey to 99 mph

Chicago Cubs

Last Friday, at an airplane hangar turned into a pitching lab somewhere in Arizona, the Cubs’ most modern pitching prospect did the thing that modern pitching prospects do: he PR’d. Max Bain, who has been a member of the Cubs organization for 14 healthy months without logging a professional inning, hit 98.8 mph on a Rapsodo.

Bain, who works as a pitching trainer at former Cub Luke Hagerty’s X2 Athletics facility in Scottsdale, is the walking definition of a prospect in 2021. The 23-year-old righty is the guy other prospects trust for pitch design advice. His weekly live AB’s are more focused on the tunneling and the design of his four secondaries than the number on the radar gun. He weaves seam-shifted wake and vertical approach angle into casual conversation. He’s vlogging the journey on YouTube.

What’s amazing about this story, however, is how new this is. Two years ago, the 6-foot-6 Bain was a Division II starter with an ERA in the fours, a fastball in the mid 80s, and not the slightest bit of knowledge of the Driveline-led revolution happening in the pitching world.

“Quite honestly, had I been fascinated by the science, I wouldn’t have been in the physical shape that I was,” Bain told me last week. “I was three bills, man … And 300 pounds is a very hard equation to make work.”

After graduating Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, Bain spent the rest of the 2019 season between the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Utica Unicorns with mixed results. Those experiences taught him the existential lesson that now guides his work ethic and pitch design decisions.

“What makes me special? And I kind of landed on, nothing really makes me special,” Bain said. “There wasn’t an outlier about me that was positive.”

It didn’t take long for that to change. Not yet ready to begin his nine-to-five life, Bain got a phone call from friend Ryan McClelland working at a velocity program family outside Detroit, who thought Bain would be a good fit as a coach for high schoolers, provided he learn the teachings of Driveline Plus. Simultaneously, Bain began significant work on his body composition, aided by a weight-lifting program from renowned trainer Eric Cressey.

“When I looked at that 2019-2020 winter and saw that it was my first opportunity to control things the way I wanted to, that’s what kind of did it for me,” Bain said. “Okay, it’s all in my hands now, there’s nowhere to displace blame. I’m not going to half-ass it.”

Things moved pretty quickly from there. During a six-week break from throwing off a mound, Bain was able to hit 100 mph on a pull-down. This milestone was telling, as he’d learned that a reliever could max out at about 2-3 mph below their max pulldown velocity. Progress had become undeniable. Soon after returning to the bump, Bain threw in front of five teams (the Cubs were one of them). Shortly after that, he recorded a live AB session and posted it on-line – where it was picked up by Pitching Ninja – and soon heard from 18 teams.

Bain ultimately received three contract offers (Cubs, Red Sox, Twins), choosing the Cubs simply because he preferred Arizona as a Spring Training destination.

“After I decided it was the Cubs, I talked to [Craig] Breslow for about 45 minutes, and he basically sold the entire organization for me,” Bain said. “I was like, man, this is amazing. I’ve already said yes but wow I completely lucked out by choosing to come here.”

Weeks later, Bain was asked to participate in the Cubs four-week mini-camp in Arizona. He was down to 265 pounds with a fastball up to 97 mph. He met Hagerty there, who would give him a job 10 months later when a trip to Driveline HQ in Washington ended due to the state’s COVID protocols. When I messaged Luke why he gave him a job so easily, he wrote back: “Anyone that has walked the path like he has I had no doubt would be an asset and fit in with our culture and willingness to learn.”

And Luke’s clearly a believer in Max’s potential:

The more you learn about Bain, 23, the harder the optimism is to ignore. He’s 235 pounds now (down nearly 70 in less than two years), and coming off a 2020 where he logged the equivalent of 100 simulated innings (albeit in a batting cage). As quarantine began, Bain’s first project was re-hauling a delivery into the shortened arm action that is increasingly common in the Major Leagues.

“My delivery had become extremely tempo-dependent,” Bain said. “I decided we’re going to kill any factor that has a large range to it. I’m going to eliminate it from the equation.”

From there, Bain’s summer 2020 objective was to begin commanding his fastball into the up-and-in area of the strike zone. In college, Max had only ever really thrown low-and-away fastballs, an older philosophy given Bain’s height and natural tilt. However, Bain had since learned that his natural four-seam fastball has a spin direction (1:30) and spin efficiency (above 98%) to achieve the rising effect that plays best up in the zone. Oddly, he discovered the reason for this when getting an x-ray.

“I have an ever-so-small case of scoliosis. and my spine drifts to my left side a little bit. and what that does is unlock my scap a little bit on my right side and it makes it easier for me to laterally tilt through ball release and I’m able to actually get on top of the fastball a little more.”

Armed with what he calls an “anatomical anomaly,” Bain’s next piece of the puzzle has been getting his secondaries to be Major League caliber. Bain’s curveball is his own variation of the spike-curve that the Cubs have taught frequently, which Bain has found after cycling through countless different grips. It also reached a personal-best velocity on Friday of 84 mph, and it’s designed specifically to tunnel off high four-seamers.

On the other end of the pitch mix is the changeup, which Bain says he doesn’t dare alter the grip with. His is a split-change held between the middle and ring finger, where he kills the spin to give it late break (he says it’s the only pitch that he cares about the specific spin rate, 1100-1400, wanting to get it as low as possible). While it will certainly be a weapon he turns to against left-handed hitters, in Bain’s first vlog from two weeks ago, he talks about working on it as a low-and-inside pitch against righties.

The last piece for Bain is a slider-cutter combination that Bain throws using the same grip, though he’s developing an ability to make it two vastly different pitches. When up in the zone, particularly inside to a left-handed hitter, Bain will get the pitch to 90 mph with a glove side tail. When down in the zone, it becomes a slider, with added vertical break and a slightly lower velocity. Bain says he’s still deciphering how the pitch achieves a seam-shifted wake component that helps differentiate it from others, as it changes its seam orientation mid-flight. The slow-motion video and Trackman data from the Cubs Pitch Lab will answer some questions as he further unlocks the slutter’s potential.

But while Bain is an extremely goal-oriented prospect, his expectations for 2021 are more modest. He wants to be ready to throw three innings per outing when minor league Spring Training begins next month. He wants to be okay using the trainer’s room as a place for preparation, after a lat flare-up from September taught him some valuable lessons. And he wants to step on the mound every outing knowing that he’s done all the work possible to prepare.

“If I’m staying on top of my process and I’m 100% invested in what I’m doing – which I don’t think is going to be an issue … I think I’m going to have a lot of success.”

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Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.