We’ve known for years now that the Cubs need to add both strike throwers and hard throwers, preferably by finding or developing pitchers who throw strikes with velocity in the upper 90s. No rotation in MLB had a slower average fastball than the Cubs’ 91.6 mph last season and only three bullpens came in lower than Chicago’s 92.9 mph heat. That led to an overall average fastball of 92.2 mph, also the slowest in baseball.
The Cubs were closer to the middle of the pack (18th) with a 22.4% strikeout rate and their 16.5% called-strike rate was 12th, but their 8.8% walk was 24th and their 10.7% swinging-strike rate was 20th. Jed Hoyer has done a lot of work this winter on improving run prevention by strengthening the defense up the middle and leaning into soft skills behind the plate, which should help to mask some of those shortcomings from the pitching staff.
Even so, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to compete at a high level without getting some dudes who throw gas. While simply throwing hard isn’t the difference between failure and success — see the Reds, whose numbers below are inflated by Hunter Greene — it sure does provide a lot more margin for error when you have a pitcher capable of hitting triple digits.
Per Codify, the Cubs were far and away the worst team in baseball when it came to getting swinging and called strikes on pitches through 98+ mph last season. Their grand total of two such pitches is pathetic enough without having to scroll past all 29 other teams, then you start thinking about how those results probably aren’t going to change much this season.
Swinging & called strikes thrown at 98+ MPH (2022):
MIN BAL 257
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) January 30, 2023
For what it’s worth, both of those pitches above by the Cubs came from Jeremiah Estrada in his sterling MLB debut on August 30 in Toronto. The first pitch he ever threw in the bigs was a 98.5 mph swinging strike to Teoscar Hernández. Estrada then threw a 98.1 mph whiff to Danny Jansen later in the same inning. Estrada’s 96.8 mph average fastball was a full tick faster than Manny Rodríguez, and they were the only two to surpass 95 mph on the season.
Ed. note: This is from data I pulled using MLB.com’s pitch-by-pitch info, so it’s entirely possible Michael Fisher from Codify is using different information.
The good news is that this should begin to improve by next year, if not late in 2023 as more prospects begin to make their way to the big club. Even once that does start to happen, however, my praise for those potential results will be tempered somewhat by the fact that we’ve been calling out the organization’s poor track record of velo development for over four years.
It’s great that the Cubs are doing better in this area, but it’s still so frustrating that they’re so far behind everyone else as a function of their own poor developmental and philosophical choices throughout most of Theo Epstein’s tenure. I don’t mean to lay the blame solely at Epstein’s feet and I’m not going to point fingers elsewhere, though I’m pretty sure you would all come up with the same answer if asked who was primarily responsible.
My point here is just to put the timing in context, as it wasn’t until late 2018 or early 2019 that the Cubs realized their conservative approach to pitching development wasn’t working. But hey, things are different now and we should start to see that with more tangible results at the big league level. At least I hope that’s the case.