Motte-ly Crew: Cubs Add Hard-Throwing Righty to ‘Pen

With all the hubbub surrounding the Lester presser, the Cubs’ most recent pitching addition may be flying under the radar. While the team hasn’t officially confirmed the signing, WSCR 670’s Bruce Levine is reporting that former St. Louis Cardinal Jason Motte has agreed to a one-year deal, which Yahoo Sports claims is for $4.5 million.

Cubs president Theo Esptein has mentioned that lefties Tsuyoshi Wada and Felix Doubront are in play for spots in the ‘pen, but Motte would provide another power arm to a stable of righties that already includes Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez.

While Motte must pass a physical in order for the deal to be consummated, he appeared to be relatively healthy in 2014 after sitting out all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery. At 32, he’s not as overpowering as the man who saved 42 games for the 2012 Cardinals, but he’s still got pretty good zip on the heater.

Not surprisingly, that banner season saw Motte’s fastball velocity at its peak, averaging a robust 97.1 mph. It was markedly down this past season, but still ran up to the plate at 94.4 mph. Some of that drop is undoubtedly due to age, but a quick look at his Pitch f/x stats tells us that pitch selection has something to do with it as well.

In 2009, Motte’s first full season in the Majors, he leaned heavily on the four-seamer, throwing it 77.2% of the time. The slider (14.8%) was his only other pitch with appreciable use, as no other type of throw even managed a 5% usage. It’s interesting to note that the two-seam (0.9%) and cut fastball (n/a) were basically non-existent.

That season, he posted a 4.76 ERA (4.81 FIP) with 8.58 K/9 and an alarming 3.65 BB/9. Perhaps even more alarming, though, was the 1.59 HR/9 Motte put up by allowing 10 homers in 56.2 innings pitched. It was clear that something needed to change if he was to get a few more cups of coffee.

The of paying for his own Starbucks forced Motte to drop the slider from the repertoire almost entirely (0.2%), while shifting focus to the two-seamer (22.8%) and integrating a cutter (11.9%) for the first time. The results were dramatic, as evidenced by improvements in ERA (2.24), FIP (3.29), K/9 (9.29), BB/9 (3.10), and HR/9 (.86. All this in only 4 fewer innings that the prior season.

2011 saw even better number across the board for the most part, a performance that led to Motte’s promotion from setup man to closer for the 2012 campaign. He relied even more heavily on the cutter (18.9% and 25.2%), while cutting back on the two-seamer (19.8% and 13.7%) in those two seasons. His velocity was up on all pitches in 2012, as were his strikeouts (career-high 10.75 K/9), and he threw more innings (72) than ever before in his professional career.

But after missing all of 2013 and much of 2014, Motte struggled to recapture the magic, posting a 4.68 ERA that belied his 6.49 FIP. His K’s were way down (6.12/9, an MLB-career low) and walks were way up (3.24/9). But like that 2009 season, the most frightening aspect of Motte’s performance was the propensity for surrendering the home run ball. Over just 25 innings, he saw 7 hits clear the fence, for a ratio of 2.52/9 innings, easily the worst of his professional career.

It’s possible that Motte’s poor performance was due to the rust of being laid up for so long. According to PITCHf/x, both the four-seamer (-2.9) and the cutter (-5.2) were below-average pitches for the first time in four seasons. In fact, the two-seamer (1.7) and changeup (0.3), his most seldom-used throws, were the only positives. It should be noted that Motte was leaning on his cutter more than ever in 2014, throwing it 38.8% of the time, which the change saw an increase in usage too, though only from 1.5 to 2.9%.

Perhaps Chris Bosio can further enhance his reputation as a pitch whisperer, a possibility that seems plausible given his own affinity for the cutter. While the Steamer projections came out prior to the news of Motte’s pairing with the Cubs pitching guru, they certainly believe that he can regain his form. I’ll not add to the statistical tedium by laying them out for you, but Steamer anticipates a return to near career-average numbers in most categories.

Of particular import to Cubs fans should be the home runs allowed. Motte’s fly ball and line drive percentages have climbed in each of the last three seasons, while his ground ball percentage has, of course, dropped appreciably. That’s not exactly the formula for success in pitching at Wrigley Field.

If Motte can find a way keep the ball on the ground more often and can stick to his 1.04 HR/9 career mark, things should look pretty good and that $4.5 million will be a nice bargain. But if he’s leaving the ball up, we could be looking at a Jose Veras redux. So are the Cubs getting Tommy Lee to rock the mound for 40 appearances, or they getting the hobbled, cringe-inducing Mick Mars?

We’ll have to wait until this Spring to find out for sure whether Motte can help the Cubs win ballgames, but the one sure bet is that he has already improved the team’s beard game.

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