What to Expect When You're Expecting Caleb Kilian: An Exciting Blend of Power and Precision

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What to Expect When You’re Expecting Caleb Kilian: An Exciting Blend of Power and Precision

Chicago Cubs

Boy, tonight’s back end of the double-header feels ceremonial, with Caleb Kilian’s pending MLB debut seemingly the most exciting Cubs pitching debut in a decade (or two!). It’s easy to let this game feel like more than it is, whether it be a step in the overall rebuild, a time to reflect on last year’s trades again, or the sign that the Cubs wave of young pitching has really hit the shore.

But I want to keep the focus firmly on Caleb himself, my number four Cubs prospect, and someone that I always believed was one of the best two players the Cubs acquired at last deadline. Let’s talk, again, about that you can expect to see out there today.

I know we’re not selling blue jeans here, but what will first jump out is that Kilian absolutely looks the part of workhorse starter. He stands a filled-out 6-foot-4, successfully adding to his frame in every offseason as a professional. If ever there was a prospect that looked ready to handle 150-IP-per-year workloads, just in the way he looks standing on a mound, it’s this guy.

If recent starts are an indication, we’re likely to see four pitches from Kilian in his debut. The sinker will probably lead in usage, about 92-96 mph, with plenty of armside run. It’s led to a 58.9% groundball rate with Iowa this year. The Cubs have worked to really separate the sinker’s movement profile with his four-seam fastball, which we might see up to 97, and the goal is maximizing ride with minimal run (or even, in a perfect world, a bit of cut-movement).

But, in my mind, the thing that unlocked Kilian as a breakout prospect in 2021 was the emergence of his cutter as his best pitch. The cutter is usually about 87-91 mph, and he’s comfortable enough with it to use it as a primary offering against left-handed hitters. I think it’s his most underrated offering in the eyes of other scouting reports I read, and I think it’s the pitch that most consistently registers as plus.

(One reason I think Kilian has had so much minor league success is his comfort throwing inside to batters. Whether it’s the sinker against right-handed hitters or the cutter against lefties, Kilian seems to constantly be attempting to jam hitters. It’s not a common thing that hitters see in the minors.)

Finally, anyone that remembers the Arizona Fall League championship game — which I’ve taken to calling the greatest start in the history of that league — knows about Kilian’s curveball, which was the headline offering from that contest. It’s a spike curve that Kilian re-worked with the Cubs, and he’s got a nice feel for spotting that pitch into the dirt with two strikes.

The push and pull that Kilian will manage, the balance he’ll likely tinker with during his first few big league seasons, is how often to pitch towards strikeouts versus aiming for soft contact. While he’s always managed a healthy strikeout rate in the minors, Kilian definitely leans into pitch-to-contact stretches, unafraid to throw his cutter or sinker into the middle third, daring the hitter to beat him. The strikeouts, meanwhile, generally depend on chases from high four seamers and curveballs in the dirt.

Many have wondered why Kilian’s walk rate has gone up so much in 2022 (9.1% versus 3.4% last year), and I think the answer is mostly in the heightened difficulty of getting more advanced hitters to chase. Caleb’s MLB success will hinge on commanding those put-away pitches in the right spots (be it the corners of the strike zone or out of the zone entirely) to induce chase or weak contact. In my mind, Kilian has such a wide range of outcomes — I can see an All-Star, I can see a #4/5 starter — and it’s because I see great potential, but no finished progress, with those two-strike offerings. It’s the thing I’ll be watching closest today.

And that’s a good place to remind, in finishing here, that we are still dealing with a work in progress here. I think Kilian’s development makes an MLB assignment the next logical step, but his development is not yet complete. His results today, and in 2022 overall, won’t define the pitcher he’ll ultimately be, but instead be a guide on the next focuses to achieve his ultimate ceiling.

[Post-script from Bryan here: I neglected to mention within the piece that Kilian also has a fifth pitch, a changeup, that has been a real focus behind-the-scenes since joining the Cubs. It’s a new grip he’s worked on in bullpens consistently for the last eight months, but doesn’t see a ton of game action. Still, I would not be surprised if Tommy Hottovy tries to work a couple into the game plan tonight, perhaps just to challenge Caleb a bit and see where the pitch’s quality stands.]



Author: Bryan Smith

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