Who the hell is this guy, Porter Hodge tells me the Cubs asked when he started throwing bullpens at their Spring Training complex this winter. It’s the same sentiment that has been asked in my mentions over and over in the first month, as Hodge put together perhaps the best month of any starting pitcher in the system. (Brett: And shortly after Bryan drafted this post, Hodge won pitcher of the month honors for the Cubs!)
Hodge is the regular season’s first definable “breakout prospect,” a guy that used the winter to take his game to another level. The 6-foot-4 righty throws harder now, yes, averaging 93.5 mph with his fastball. And a slider that hinted at being plus last year is definitively so in 2022 (among the best sliders in the system, actually). But the real difference, the one that unlocked Hodge’s success, came on the weight scale.
“Last year I weighed roughly 240 and I wasn’t really mobile like I am right now,” Hodge said, in explanation for his recent success. “I weigh roughly 220 right now, so it’s just loosened everything up, made my timing get together … and I’m able to repeat myself more.”
When Hodge went back to Utah at the end of last season, he made the conscious decision to change his diet. He explains it simply as “wanting to better myself,” and, by simply being more cognizant of his eating choices, lost twenty pounds in three months.
The Cubs hadn’t directly asked Hodge to lose weight, and so when they first saw just how quick such a pronounce change had occurred, initially they were concerned. But Hodge’s on-boarding testing numbers were higher than they’d been at his previous weight, and the results on the mound began to speak for themselves. Hodge had become more athletic, and in doing so, unlocked both stuff and control that had only been hinted at in the past.
In four April starts with Low-A Myrtle Beach, Hodge allowed just 10 hits and a 1.56 ERA in 17.1 innings, striking out 21 and walking six. He’s doing it with a 92-96 mph fastball, 83-87 mph slider and 76-80 mph curve.
Porter Hodge’s night is done and it was quite the performance.
5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 6 K
Here’s all 6 punchies (and I’m missing some serious swords in early counts) pic.twitter.com/Uy5bMvm3El
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) April 30, 2022
Hodge, 21, was drafted in the 13th round of the 2019 MLB Draft, and the Cubs ultimately signed him for $125,000, buying out his collegiate commitment to the University of Utah. He struggled that fall in the Arizona Complex League, walking twice as many as he struck out, pitching through a considerable amount of back pain. The next spring, the Cubs determined that Hodge had a bulging disc pushing on his sciatic nerve and scheduled his surgery.
COVID then struck, of course, causing the Cubs to send their prospects home on March 12. Two days later, Hodge was still able to get the surgery, then completing his rehab at home. When Hodge returned to the mound, he initially found it difficult to trust the surgery.
“I was hesitant for sure. I was still used to babying a little bit because I couldn’t finish over my leg,” Hodge said. “It’s definitely been a long process to get to where I am right now.”
Perhaps the most important part of that long process came last summer, shortly before the Cubs decided to promote Hodge from the ACL to Myrtle Beach for a late-season cup of coffee. Pitching Coach Doug Willey came to Hodge with a suggestion on a new slider grip, designed to better differentiate the pitch from his curveball. The big righty took to it almost immediately, putting it right into the arsenal, and seeing inconsistent-but-good results with it during his time in Myrtle Beach (I mentioned the pitch in my write-up of Hodge in the Honorable Mention section of this year’s prospect rankings).
Hodge says the pitch is essentially the “whirly,” another name for the Sweeper that’s big in baseball right now. The Yankees used it to great effect last year, and it’s been suggested that the pitch’s success in that organization was part of the impetus for the Cubs to poach Daniel Moskos from the Bronx Bombers. Hodge has been able to get a pretty consistent 15-17 inches of horizontal movement with the pitch this year, topping at the elite 20-inch number that guys like Ethan Roberts succeed with.
“I think it’s my bread-and-butter. I love my slider,” Hodge said. “It’s obviously clicked really well for me.”
Best sequence of Porter Hodge’s season so far for me. Bases loaded, @CGMorty59 comes out and sees him (a mix of calming him down and firing him up, Porter tells me), and Hodge responds with this 3-pitch, curve-curve-slider strikeout. Big time pitches in big time spot. pic.twitter.com/NmA5MIwCuf
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) May 2, 2022
There’s no rush in the organization to do a lot more with Hodge right now. They’ll slowly work to implement a changeup that has shown potential in bullpens, and if this success continues, he will eventually move to High-A South Bend. But it was pointed out to me that, had Hodge gone to college, this spring would be his draft year, and the Cubs feel good about the development he’s had by choosing the organization instead.
“I’m very happy where I’m at,” Hodge says. And where is he? On the radar.
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Header image via the Pelicans on Instagram.