Before you proceed any further, please visit The Athletic and read Sahadev Sharma’s extensive Pitch Lab Index piece to learn exactly what Cubs pitchers are adjusting in terms of mindset, mechanics, and repertoire. Even if you don’t have a subscription, they should have a limited trial available. Because it’d be highly unethical to reproduce a significant portion of the proprietary content here, I’ll focus simply on pitchers Cubs Insider has already covered.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had initially balked at this for fear that it’d be tooting our own horn or regurgitating existing knowledge. That thought passed quickly as I realized that a) we should be proud of the work we do here; 2) it’s silly to think that every Cubs fan has read everything we’ve written; and d) there is always additional depth to be gained by digging with a different shovel.
Again, check out Sharma’s piece in it’s entirety to get the straight dope on 31 different Cubs pitchers from Craig Kimbrel to Caleb Simpson. We’re only looking at six of them below, some of which come from a third-party perspective.
Shortly after the Cubs agreed to a split deal with the former Braves pitcher, CI‘s Brendan Miller hypothesized that improving Winkler’s active spin rate could turn him into a lights-out reliever. Though he’s always generated a lot of spin, it hasn’t adequately translated to movement as the result of either inefficient mechanics or some other performance thief.
“Some other places I was at, they had the analytics, but how do I translate this to the field? The first thing they brought up was getting me in the lab and figuring out what I can do,” Winkler told Sharma. “We saw some things grip-wise and mechanics-wise.
“I’m a higher spin guy, so I’m trying to get the spin efficiency on my fastball. Get that vertical rise better. I’m seeing it pay off immensely already.”
Upon seeing video of Maples’ live BP session in Mesa on Sunday, I thought I detected slightly different mechanics in his delivery. I’m a total Maples stan and worried that I was merely looking for an excuse write about him, but Tribune beat writer Mark Gonzales confirmed what I was seeing. Blessed with an otherworldly slider, Maples hasn’t been able to command his fastball with any measure of consistency.
Though he didn’t specifically mention anything with arm angle, it does sound as though he’s working to get behind the heater a little more. He’s always thrown out of a lower slot, but having his forearm more perpendicular to his upper arm could well have resulted in him getting more gyro spin than the typical backspin you want on a four-seam. Creating a more obtuse angle at the elbow may be part of what he’s going for.
“So my fastball wasn’t getting good (spin) efficiency on it,” Maples explained to Sharma. “I saw the Edgertronic camera and it helped me better visualize it. …A grip change won’t help, it might change it a small percentage, but it’s not going to have a drastic jump (in spin efficiency). It’s pretty much about manipulating the wrist.”
Not as spot-on as the Winkler stuff, but it’s fair to say Maples is working on delivery changes.
This one’s pretty easy because Mekkes flat-out told CI exactly what he was changing coming out of last season. His slider was a little too “sweepy,” so he really wanted to sharpen that into more of a put-away pitch. Most people have focused on his increased velocity this spring, but a noticeably slimmer Mekkes told CI via text that it’s just a matter of losing weight.
The breaking ball, though…
“I’m looking at how my slider comes out of my hand and I’m toying around with different grips,” Mekkes shared with Sharma. “Last year, I’d come on the side of the ball and it’d just spin and not do too much. It was more horizontal. I changed it so my fingers are more on top and it’s more curveball action, more down. It’s been a much better pitch for me since then.”
Yep and yep. Even if he wasn’t aiming to amp up the fastball, being able to hit mid-90’s regularly will make everything else play up.
After breezing through the lower levels, Miller suffered a rude awakening at Triple-A Iowa. Between juiced MLB balls and smarter hitters, his stuff didn’t play quite as well and his mistakes ended up leaving the yard more frequently. But he improved steadily over his time in Des Moines and enters 2020 with a much better idea of how to gameplan.
He explained to CI at Cubs Convention that it’s not really a matter of what he throws, but when and where.
“It was just fine-tuning little hand stuff, mechanical stuff and making sure I’m building off last year,” he told Sharma. “I don’t need to change too much there. Got hit around in Triple-A, I didn’t hit my spots. So it’s more about mentally what I’ll do against hitters than mechanics-wise right now.”
Not really much to see here, I guess. Unlike many of the other guys on this list, though, Miller’s development is more about experience and learning how to pitch. Though not a simple task, it doesn’t involve any mechanical overhauls or learning a new grip.
Miller did pick up new changeup and spike-curve grips last year, the latter of which is shown below.
A lefty whose “upside is legitimate” in the eyes of the Cubs’ development leaders, Steele’s progress has been halting due to nagging injuries. An inconsistent changeup has also held him back because he can’t use it as a consistent weapon against right-handed batters. But he’s overhauled the pitch on the advice of fellow southpaw Cole Hamels and could really make some noise as long as he stays healthy.
“Once we got that (baseline from the Pitch Lab), I’ve been working a few things with my changeup,” Steele told Sharma. “The release height and other numbers like that. It’s not a grip thing, it’s a timing and release point deal.”
Easier said than done, but far from impossible.
The young righty told CI this would be “the changeup year” now that he’s adopted a new grip that more closely mimics his four-seamer. As such, it was a little interesting that he said not a word to Sharma about the offspeed pitch, choosing instead to tout the sinker he’s resumed throwing and a new grip on his curveball.
“There’s a sinker that I’m throwing now,” Alzolay revealed. “And a new grip on my curveball that I’ve been working on the last year. I’m going across the two seams on top of the ball. It’s made the break go straight down instead of going to the side. Last year it was going more left to right than straight down.”
I wonder if he misspoke, though, since the curveball description he gave sounds an awful lot like what he’s done with the change. Not to mention, the curve was his best secondary while the changeup sort of came and went. Making significant alterations to both seems unnecessary, even potentially detrimental, but that’s not really my call to make.
Just to be sure, I reached out to Sharma for confirmation of what Alzolay was saying, and he reiterated that the curve was indeed the pitch in question. I’m having a difficult time reconciling the visual of the pitch he’s talking about, but, again, that may just be a matter of my own limited knowledge.
All that’s left now for all of these pitchers and the two dozen more trying to earn roster spots is to execute on everything they’ve learned in the Pitch Lab and elsewhere. Sounds simple, right?