Let me go ahead and open this up by admitting that I’m not the least bit impartial when it comes to Alec Mills and my belief that he should be part of the Cubs’ starting rotation this season. He’s an incredibly humble person who made good on an interview that was originally scheduled for March 12, the day MLB shut down due to the pandemic.
He also joined us for an episode of The Rant Live, taking a break from grinding stumps with his father-in-law to show off a fresh fade and his infant son. It should come as no surprise that he opted to list his name as “Millsy” in the video chat screen.
Even without those personal connections, I’d be pulling for Mills because everyone loves an underdog. Dude walked onto his college baseball team, barely throws 90 mph, has a slightly nerdy appearance due to those updated Chris Sabo Rec Specs, and has an awkward-looking landing with his front foot more closed than any pitcher you’ll ever see. It’s hard to envision him as a professional pitcher, period, let alone a guy who logged the 16th no-hitter in franchise history.
He admitted during his Zoom interview with reporters Thursday that he has not yet watched that effort and probably won’t until after he retires.
Fittingly, that no-no was one of the most improbable in the game’s history because of how few Brewer bats Mills missed. And that’s without even factoring in his role as a swingman who was in the rotation mainly because of injuries to José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood. He didn’t let the odds stand in his way last season, or ever before, and he’s preparing the same way for a 2021 campaign in which his role is a question mark once again.
“To me, in my mindset, I’m still coming in and fighting for a job and I think nothing’s given,” Mills told reporters Thursday. “You see we signed a couple guys, so I think that just further affirmed my belief that nothing’s given. I come in just trying to be the best I can be and at the end of the day, we just wanna win ballgames as the Chicago Cubs.”
It might seem at first blush as though Mills is at a disadvantage in a rotation that features several soft-tossing righties, all of whom have more significant track records. Then there’s the possibility that the team wants to prioritize young pitchers, though Adbert Alzolay is the only one whose name David Ross would even consider writing in ink at this juncture.
“I know I have the ability to do a lot of different things,” Mills said. “I know that’s an asset to any team. So, I’m just here to hopefully make them make the tough decisions.”
One of those different things Mills does is throw the slowest curveball this side of high school. His 67.6 mph average was the lowest in MLB during the 2019 season, narrowly undercutting Patrick Corbin‘s 68.1 mph. Mills dialed it down by nearly a full tick last year, though Corbin made like a snail and got to an almost incomprehensible 65.1 mph on the bender. Thing is, though, Mills threw his hook about 7.5 times more than Corbin.
That curve was a big key to holding the Brewers hitless and it’s an interesting wrinkle that gives Mills a slightly different look from his colleagues. Even though Kyle Hendricks started throwing his own breaking ball far more frequently last season, his 72.2 mph average blows Mills away. Alzolay likewise has a plus curve that looks like a fastball by comparison at 80.2 mph.
Then there’s Trevor Williams, who upped his curveball usage to a whopping 6.9% last season after having never been above 2% in prior years. And wouldn’t you know it, that was the first time that suddenly nice pitch had ever produced positive value for him. In fact, it was actually his only pitch that had positive value at all in 2020.
Jake Arrieta threw his curve less frequently than ever in 2020, almost half of his career average, but he also threw it harder than ever. While 82 mph might not seem like that big a jump, it stands in contrast to the general erosion of his fastball velocity. What’s more, Arrieta threw his curve harder than all but 15 other pitchers last season (min. 40 IP). Seven of those had average fastballs above 95 mph and only one (J.A. Happ, 90.9) threw his fastball slower than Arrieta (92.1).
I can honestly say I didn’t intend to follow this rabbit trail when I first started this piece and I apologize if this extemporaneous analysis is off-putting, but I feel like maybe we’ve stumbled upon a piece of the Cubs’ thinking. Even if they’re not specifically targeting curveballs, which might be a little too myopic, it’s perhaps further evidence of an attempt to generate more grounders and take advantage of real-life variables that might not jump out on paper.
It’s like the differences between Joc Pederson and Kyle Schwarber, many of which are only evident if you pull out the jeweler’s loup and a pair of tweezers. While there’s not a whole lot of variation in terms of how hard most of the Cubs’ projected starters throw, there are some distinct differences in how they throw. Or at least that’s what I’ve convinced myself is the case.
However it all shakes out, I’ll be pulling for Mills to shove in the role he’s given.
Ed. note: I didn’t forget about Zach Davies, he just hardly throws his curveball and was also acquired mainly because the Padres demanded it as part of a salary offset. He’s a perfectly fine pitcher, actually very good, it’s just that his presence can’t really be attributed to anything strategic beyond financial necessity.