I’ve been waiting for an article like this from Sahadev Sharma, who is the best in the biz at digging in on, deconstructing, and explaining pitching development concepts. Patrick Mooney co-authored, so I have to give him love, too!
It’s a bit of a niche interest, but when you think about it, is there really any singular principle that SHOULD be more interesting to Chicago Cubs fans right now? Pitcher development has obviously been the predominant problem over the 11 years of the Epstein-Hoyer Era, and was an enormous focus for the player development overhaul that started two years ago (and then the front office overhaul that started last year). So, it follows that a lot of us can’t get enough detail on precisely HOW the Cubs are working through that process. Moreover, with the pandemic costing we observers a year of data, it’s all the more interesting to me to hear about the development process.
Anyway, suffice to say, this is worth your nerdy time today:
Two years after the Cubs revamped pitching development, velocity has jumped throughout the org, but so have injuries. Still, the latest hirings at the MLB level show the org is committed to this direction as they continue to embrace cutting edge ideas https://t.co/UTDT24svzn
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) December 23, 2021
Probably the most compelling element of the article is the exploration of the velocity and stuff gains throughout the organization, contrasted against the many significant pitching injuries the Cubs faced this past year (Brailyn Márquez, Kohl Franklin, Riley Thompson, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, Benjamin Rodriguez were among the top 30 prospect types who all missed the full year … it was A LOT). The Cubs’ minor league pitcher injury rate was apparently really high, relative to the rest of the league. It wasn’t just our imagination.
You can’t and shouldn’t act like there’s a one to one correlation between efforts to change your development program and an uptick in injuries, especially when there was a pandemic shutdown and an organizational philosophy change a couple years earlier to target more higher-risk, higher-upside arms. The development changes to emphasize velocity and stuff gains were probably an element, but to what extent is still an open question.
A section that really stood out, on that issue, but also on how the Cubs – very broadly speaking – are thinking about pitcher development:
Although the injuries are easy to focus on, the jump in “stuff” is what makes the Cubs believe they’re headed in the right direction. There is a strong correlation between throwing harder and injury rates — the data has borne that out — but it doesn’t mean that increased velocity will lead to a pitcher getting hurt 100 percent of the time. That’s where the Cubs need to work with pitchers to make sure they’re working to improve their “stuff” responsibly. According to Cubs internal data, even with the injuries, the team was among the top half-dozen or so organizations to improve “stuff,” primarily velocity, in the minor leagues from 2019 to 2021. (2020 doesn’t have any usable minor-league data.) In their eyes, that’s a win.
(Assistant GM and VP of Pitching Craig) Breslow’s vision is for the Cubs to concentrate on one area at a time. Through what they call a “DNA test” — a Developmental Needs Analysis — the Cubs determine high-performance goals and outline a specific plan for each player. For pitchers, they divide pitching into three pillars: velocity, shape/movement and command. The staff looks at how many standard deviations off of the major-league average a pitcher is in each category independent of the other two. Instructors see which one is furthest off course, and usually, that is the focus until the issue is rectified (or it’s determined no more can be done and it’s time to move on to the next task). The process is more intricate, but that’s the overview.
Interesting way to zero in on a particular focus for a player (who undoubtedly still works on the other things, it just may not be the primary focus). We’ve heard from multiple external sources that velocity gains in the farm system were noticeable, so they’ve got something working there. As for pitch shape/movement (I might just call that “stuff”), there were also some clear gains. Command, I’m much less sure about. I suppose we’ll see. And the injuries. That’s gotta be a focus for next year, too. Obviously.
Ultimately there are a lot of factors that go into what happened in the farm system on the pitching side in 2021, and at least the Cubs have the information now to sort through, both to aid these players in 2022, and also to improve their development program going forward for everyone.
Speaking of going forward, I continue to dig what the Cubs are doing to integrate their minor league development into the big leagues. Sharma and Mooney report that, in addition to bringing in Daniel Moskos as the new assistant pitching coach (he comes from a developmental background, first at Driveline and then as a minor league pitching coach in the Yankees’ org), the Cubs have also hired on former pitching prospect – and former college coach – Danny Hultzen as a Major League pitching strategist. He comes most recently from having worked up and down in the Cubs’ system as part of his comeback (his story was so impressive). So you immediately have two new coaches on the staff working with the big league pitchers who were most recently working in the upper minors.
The Cubs want to make sure the development practices and philosophies that are taught in the minor leagues are consistent on into the big leagues (it’s the same thing we’ve heard on the hitting side), and maybe they can better continue player development as guys contribute at the big league level. Imagine a world where we would have supreme confidence in the Cubs’ ability to utilize someone like Brailyn Marquez or Ryan Jensen as a short reliever very early in his career, while simultaneously continuing to develop him as a starting pitcher for the years ahead. Other organizations do this kind of thing all the time, and we’ve only started to get a whiff of it from the Cubs (last year, with guys like Justin Steele, Adbert Alzolay, and Keegan Thompson). You’d love to be able to count on young arms to make meaningful big league contributions in small doses, while also counting on it have only a POSITIVE impact on their long-term development, even in a totally different role.