For many fans, myself included, the first few weeks of spring training are some of the most joyous of the entire season. Everything is new again and the return of actual baseball serves to wash away some of the winter’s stagnant storylines. But don’t let the stress-free environment environment fool you, the players are putting in work.
That’s particularly true for pitchers who are working to modify or perfect their repertoires, whether it’s adding a new pitch or simply honing fastball command and building velocity. Given all the questions surrounding their rotation, all eyes are going to be on the Cubs’ starting pitchers as games get underway.
With that in mind, here are six trends I’m going to be paying close attention to over the next few weeks.
1. Jon Lester‘s changeup
While Lester doesn’t have the same stuff he once did, he is still a vital part of Manager David Ross’s rotation in 2020. And just because Lester doesn’t throw 94 mph anymore doesn’t mean he’s completely done. He mitigated natural age-related decline in 2019 by swapping four-seamers for cutters and doubling changeup usage, as illustrated in the figure below. We saw Lester throw changeups at nearly three times his typical rate in one spring training game against the Rockies last year. Will his upcoming spring starts tell us what changes to expect for the regular season?
2. Tyler Chatwood‘s sinker
One possible reason for Chatwood’s bullpen success last season was a dramatic change in pitch usage. Instead of throwing a sinker once every four pitches like he did in 2018, Chatwood threw the tailing pitch twice every five pitches in 2019. He also threw his cutter 60% less last year as he favored that 96 mph sinker. Let’s see if the frontrunner for the Cubs’ fifth rotation spot continues to rely heavily on his sinker this spring or if last year’s usage was just a byproduct of his bullpen role.
3. Yu Darvish‘s splitter
Any discussion of Darvish’s repertoire must begin with the caveat that pitch classification tools have trouble accurately identifying his offerings. And the king of Cubs Twitter is more than happy to let you know if the data is incorrect, which I quickly found out when gushing over what I thought was a two-seamer last season.
— ダルビッシュ有(Yu Darvish) (@faridyu) June 1, 2019
That splitter continues to hold my attention. According to Brooks Baseball’s classification, Darvish started throwing the the pitch consistently in June and gradually increased its frequency month-to-month thereafter. The effectiveness of Darvish’s splitter was absolutely insane, too, as he induced a whiff with it once every four pitches. That was the best rate in MLB among splitters. He seems to have hundreds of pitches, but how often he utilizes his splitter this spring could tell us how much he plans to throw it once the games count.
Both Hendricks and Quintana threw a dramatic number of elevated fastballs of both the four-seam and two-seam variety throughout 2018, a strategy designed by first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. For example, look at Hendricks’ 2018 fastball zone profile (no red high in the zone) versus his 2019 profile (lots of red high in the zone).
Quintana’s profile looks similar to Hendricks and he likewise benefited from the strategic adjustment. As we noted here on Cubs Insider, Q induced more grounders and whiffs after he made the in-season change. Former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle actually made a comment about the sudden adjustment after his team was shut down by the lefty.
Hurdle on Quintana:”Tonight he was a different cat.” Raved about all his pitches.
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) August 19, 2019
Will Hendricks and Quintana continue to throw elevated fastballs? Their spring starts could provide us with that answer.
5. Alec Mills‘ everything
Did you hear about Mills’ 2020 PECOTA projection? The computers believe Mills will be more valuable by inning than the departed Cole Hamels in 2020. Yup. PECOTA projects that Mills will be worth 1.39 WAR in just under 100 innings, compared to Hamels’ 1.37 WAR in about 150 innings.
Mills’ K/9 hovered around 8.0 over the last two years with Triple-A Iowa, but the 28-year-old owns an impressive 10.83 K/9 in 57 MLB innings. That latter number isn’t necessarily fluky, as he owns an equally impressive ~27% whiff rate with the Cubs. Baseball Savant is also bullish on the Cubs righty, comparing him to Phillies ace Aaron Nola, White Sox top prospect Dylan Cease, and lefty ace Hyun-Jin Ryu based on pitch and hitting profiles.
The potential Cubs starter throws five pitches — four-seamer, two-seamer, curve, slider, and change — with relatively equal distribution, suggesting he has the capacity to get through an MLB lineup multiple times. But I’ll be monitoring the really nice 69 mph curveball he threw almost 100 times last year.
Bleacher Nation’s Bryan Smith, who you should be following on Twitter, recently highlighted the righty’s curveball. Smith noted that, despite the hype it had received leading up to Alzolay’s debut, the curve was inefficient last year. Specifically, his spin efficiency was exceptionally poor. Will the Cubs’ pitch lab be able to optimize that curveball spin rate in order to increase its movement and efficiency?
This spring will feature starts from veterans who are looking to add an extra edge, fringe starters trying to an opportunity, and prospects just looking for a chance. Statcast data isn’t released to the public during spring with one exception — games played at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (Diamondbacks and Rockies). That means we will have to rely primarily on the eye test and whatever anecdotal evidence the Cubs share to determine which pitchers are working which pitches.
Stay tuned for more as Cubs Insider continues its borderline obsessive coverage of even the most minuscule tweaks throughout spring training and the regular season.