The Farm System with the Most Pitching Improvement in Baseball This Year? The Chicago Cubs

“You guys have to admit that our pitching infrastructure has really delivered.”

I do admit it! People really should be.

That quote comes from Chicago Cubs owner and chairman Tom Ricketts, which would normally be reason enough to discount it. Any time ANY owner is talking up internal development, you can be sufficiently wary about just how neutral and dispassionate the evaluation is.

In this case, however, it’s simply spot on.

I suspect Ricketts was mostly referencing the emergences at the big league level of guys like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson and Brandon Hughes and Hayden Wesneski, and maybe even some of the more edge-case/depth arms in the rotation and bullpen. It’s a whole lot of useful arms that have either arrived this season for the Cubs, or have taken a big step forward. The team will need more impact next year, but the preliminary bones are there for a deep and successful pitching staff in the big leagues.

I’m not sure Ricketts meant his quote about the minor leagues, too, but that might be where there has been the most improvement, and the most proof-of-concept of the pitching infrastructure.

Consider that Kyle Boddy, formerly the director of pitching for the Reds and the lead man at Driveline, evaluates the changes in pitching throughout an organization from year to year. He uses minor league data and Major League equivalence calculations to come to those conclusions, and he says the Chicago Cubs’ system effectively tied with the Washington Nationals for the largest improvement in baseball this year.

To be sure, the Cubs are outside his top four systems in pitching rankings, but they were starting from waaaaaay down there just two years ago. We know that they took a big jump last year, and if they took another big jump this year, it’s pretty fair to surmise that you are looking at one of the better pitching systems in baseball, at least by the evaluation of the guy who knows a little bit about pitching development.

Further consider that the top of the Cubs’ system – and even a lot of its quality depth – is not known for being pitching heavy. The names that get the most discussion atop the system are outfielders Pete Crow-Armstrong and Brennen Davis, the very young guys you’re looking to pop are guys like Kevin Alcántara and Owen Caissie and James Triantos and Cristian Hernández. Even some of the biggest breakouts this year are position players like Matt Mervis and Alexander Canario and Moises Ballesteros.

I think all of that kind of obscures just how well the Cubs have done bringing their pitching along so quickly, in both new additions and in player development. Boddy’s data confirms it.

Meanwhile, Patrick Mooney wrote about the developments on the pitching side in the system, with a closer look at a number of the top pitching prospects, and quotes from Cubs coordinator of pitcher development Casey Jacobsen:

I have been most curious about how the Cubs are – theoretically – better aligning between scouting and player development these days, allowing for the best possible selection of, and then integration of, player talent. Like, how do you target the right players in the draft, not just for present ability and projections, but for knowing that YOUR SYSTEM is going to really help make them what they can be? All the way up the ladder from instructional ball up to the Major Leagues?

Here’s a bit from Jacobsen to Mooney, on pitching prospect Jackson Ferris, whom the Cubs selected in the second round of this year’s draft (and went well above slot to sign):

“(Vice president of pitching Craig Breslow) had some of us look at different guys that were in that amateur group, to basically combine what we were seeing on the PD side, essentially what a PD amateur report would look like. That then could be shared with the amateur scouts. This is their specialty, so they should certainly have the loudest voice in all those conversations. It’s just giving them what our observations would be from a fairly removed look.

“You can certainly make some assessments through the video and through some of the high-speed stuff that we can do. But the scouts that are there getting the live looks can probably attest to some of the things like life on a fastball, which might look a little bit different in person than it looks on video. Those types of things should certainly make a much bigger impact in their decision-making process than what we would look at. I can see the data and I can see the video, but that doesn’t necessarily always match up with like: Does this ball really get on hitters? Is there something that isn’t quite measurable that’s at play here?

“We looked at a lot of those high school arms that went in the first, second, third rounds. (Ferris) checks a lot of those boxes (from a scouting perspective). He’s wiry. He’s athletic. He’s loose. The ball just flies out of his hand. Really good connection in his delivery. But with a high school guy, you’re looking for that projectability. Not only does he have present qualities, but he’s got that projectability as well. That was a really easy one for everyone to be aligned on.”

Great read from Mooney on this kind of stuff, and several more specific Cubs pitching prospects.

This is a long process, and you get only so much mileage out of “most improved minor league pitching” awards. (OK, not even “awards” – just “blog posts from Cubs fans”.) But you have to go step by step to make improvements over a long enough horizon that you are finally pumping out useful big league arms on the regular, and hopefully even getting a big-time impact arm to come, too. Given the last decade of internal pitching development, the bar is pretty low, though. So I’m celebrating this one.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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