I distinctly remember sitting at the Cubs Convention last January listening to Jason McLeod talk about the brilliant pitching staff from Kane County. Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, and Johnathan Martinez stifled the Midwest League with 98 wins in 2014.
However, McLeod said something that morning I found very interesting: “We are hoping that 1-2 of them make it to the major leagues.” It was quite stunning statement, but once I began to think about it, it made perfect sense: dominance at low-A Kane County was not a ticket to the majors.
Fast forward to 2015 and Jen-Ho Tseng is struggling at high-A Myrtle Beach. It is not a competition thing or a problem with ability; he is struggling with himself. His ERA was at 5.26 in the middle of May. To date, he has walked 10 batters after walking only 15 in all of 2014. Last year his batting average against was .204 and this year it is at .295. His FIP has gone from 3.28 to 3.93. So, in simple facts, he is walking more and giving up more hits.
What is the reason? Well the reason is simple: Tseng is trying to improve his chances to get to the major leagues by increasing the speed on his fastball.
The thing about developing players is that, in order for them take the next step in their development, they sometimes have to struggle. Such is the case with Tseng. He is not going to need a 95 mph fastball in the majors, but 88 is not going to get it done either. If he can find a nice 92 to 94 range, it will offset his brilliant off-speed pitches (a changeup and a curve) which he throws in the upper 70’s and low 80’s.
Tseng said this was just something he decided to do on his own. And in controlling said fastball, he has struggled. As Tseng told MiLB.com:
“I’m trying to throw harder this year. Sometimes I miss a little bit with my command, so that’s the reason I have more walks this year.”
And, even more likely, why he is getting hit more. His ERA is currently 4.70 but his walks per nine innings are at 2.30 – dramatically different from 1.29 in 2014. His K/9 has also gone from 7.29 last year to 5.90 in 2015. It is clear things are not the same.
On Monday the 25th, Tseng began put it all together for the first time. In six innings, he scattered two hits, walked zero while striking out 6, and was repeatedly in the 93-95 range. 5 of his 6 strikeouts came on his curve. Reports of his increased speed have been consistent all year and he kept the ball down all day. He got 8 groundouts and only had 1 flyout on the day. Here is a video recap of the game, but check out the action on his pitches.
In his next start on June 1, Tseng was also excellent for 5 innings, scattering 7 hits. He walked 1 and only struck out 1, but when he came out for the 6th, the wheels fell off. He got a groundout, then proceeded to give up 3 consecutive hits and 2 runs. Take away that inning and his ERA going into last Sunday’s start would have gone down to 3.68. Instead it sat at 4.04.
On Sunday June 7, Tseng took to the mound again in a game that was being broadcast on CSN+. With an home ERA of 2.87 and a batting average against at home of .212, I was expecting good stuff. In the first inning, he went 1-2-3 getting 1 K and flashing a filthy curve, though he kept the changeup in his back pocket for most of the game. In the second, it became obvious that Jen-Ho was having trouble locating the new fastball. Thankfully, after a single and an error, a double play got him out of the inning unscathed.
Tseng’s new fastball itself looked nondescript; it had little movement, tail, or arm-side run, although it was hitting 92-94. It looked to have a little rise in it, if anything. In the third inning, he worked around a walk to escape.
In the fourth, Tseng gave up one run on 3 singles; for the hitters, it was just a matter of timing him. Every Carolina Mud Cat hitter worked the count on him.
He came out in the fifth and got the first hitter to strike out. But after giving up a double, Tseng’s night was done. He had thrown 87 pitches, 54 for strikes, and allowed 1 run. That’s it. It was high effort night as he struggled to keep the fastball in the strike zone.
All that effort and yet he kept his team in the game and lowered his ERA to 3.92. His team picked him up in the sixth with a Mark Zagunis solo homer and Jacob Rodgers drove in two with a double en route to a 4-1 win.
On Saturday the 13th, Jen-Ho looked very good through two innings against Lynchburg. Then things fell apart in the third as he gave up 6 earned runs – all with two outs. A walk to Bradley Zimmer set everything in motion and a single, two doubles and a homer topped off the inning.
Tseng came back out for the fourth, got out of a jam in that inning, and was later removed with two outs in the fifth after giving up a double and a walk. He threw 89 pitches on the night, 54 for strikes. This was almost the exact same ratio as his previous start as far as pitches and strikes, but quite different in results in 1 vs. 6.
Controlling his new fastball is going to be a matter of adjustments; it’s only been two and a half months and 10 starts. Over the course of this summer, we will be tracking Tseng to see what adjustments he makes to the fastball to generate movement, be it up down, in or out. His next start will be Friday night June 19 against the same Lynchburg Hillcats. This will make an excellent point of comparison to see what changes Tseng makes from start to start.
There will be moments of brilliance and there will outings where he throws a lot of pitches. This is not going to be a smooth transition as he develops the new pitch.
Sometimes as fans, we get caught up in the stats that a prospect puts up. What really should matter, though, is the ways in which the prospect is developing and learning to adjust to make it to the majors. Jen-Ho Tseng’s fastball is one such development to monitor this summer.