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Cubs Minor League Season Review: Part 3

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Oooooh, that Kane County pitching. This is the last of a three-part review of the 2014 season in the Cubs farm system.

Sue Skowronski

As noted in the second part of this series in the comments, the Kane County Cougars won the league title in the Midwest League on their pitching. They led the league by .03 in WHIP, and .20 in ERA over West Michigan, who for their part had a healthy lead over the third best teams in both categories. In assessing why they won, I could go into what specific reasons made Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, and crew better than guys you've likely never seen pitch. However, I'm going to go a bit big-picture instead.

One of the tropes about the White Sox World Championship team I remember is that seemingly 85 percent of the time, they had the better starting pitcher. While that probably can't be proven, putting yourself in a situation where that can even be claimed is a nice start to being a particularly good team. While I listed only the top four starters for the outgoing entry of the Cubs affiliate in Geneva, the other starting pitchers were really good as well on most nights.

The questions I'm assessing are, what thought processes and methods of development made the Cougars pitching so dominant, and is it repeatable?

***

I continue to be a very form-follows-function type of fan, regardless the sport. I even tend to be very form-follows function in other aspects of life, as well. It isn't a very trendy way of looking at things, but trendy isn't usually what I'm into. If good decisions are generally being made on the little things, in general, the big things start to flow to the positive if you wait long enough. If you get lucky early, but are using bad methodology, you'll pay for it at some point. To that end, I remember seeing a slot machine player throw in a hundred-dollar bill once, and he was doing really good the first three minutes. By ten minutes later, he had cashed out with virtually nothing. Form-follows-function.

I have no idea what the draft philosophy was under the preceding decision-making groups. That may sound like a pejorative, but it isn't. As I look back through their draft picks I'm familiar with, I have little to go on as far as what their method of selection was. The selected tended to be really good people, and the brass seemed to like two-way players, but I can't put a capsule around what they were trying to focus their efforts on.

With the current regime, for pitching, it's really easy. Watching the Cougars team as much as I did made it a bit easier, but they've been really transparent in their draft strategy. Offensively, they value hitters who work the counts, and trend toward extra-base power. If you see the Cubs draft a hitter in the 15th round next year, you can pretty much assume he knows the strike zone, and can at least bang a few doubles against 3-1 pitches.

For pitchers, it's easier yet.

***

As with last time, let's assume recently-hired special assistant Ted Lilly has been sent out to the middle of Kansas to watch a small-school college game between two known pitchers. One of them, call him Charlie, throws in the mid 90s. His velocity is all of that, with a possibility for more being added later. However, he kicks around on the mound a bit too much, shaking off his catcher two or three times once in awhile getting signals. When a runner gets on base, Charlie tends to go into the tank, lobbing wild throws to the first baseman. His curve has bite on occasion, but it also hits a couple of hitters, leading to a few more slow innings.

With his velocity, Charlie will probably go in the top eight rounds. Someone will think that their coaching staff will get him to get the concepts of control and command. By the third inning or so, Lilly is watching the landscape during his half-innings, and he's thankful to be screened off from any of his wilder throws.

The other team has trotted out a less-known specimen who I'll call Cliff. Only about 6-1, Cliff rarely breaks the 90 mark, usually topping out at 91. His curve isn't totally polished either, but he uses it regularly, and puts away eight hitters on strikes in his six-and-change one-walk innings. He gives up a couple runs when an outfielder butchers a fly to center field, but shakes it off. His repertoire runs the gamut on velocities from 91 to the mid-70s, depending on what he was delivering. In a key situation, he makes a diving catch on a bunt play, bailing himself out of a jam in the fifth inning, which was one of only two frames that required over twelve pitches or eight minutes for him.

Cliff will probably be available in the mid-20th rounds. Given what we know from this farcical commentary, I would expect Cliff to be the type of pitcher the Cubs select. Why? Cliff does what Cubs pitchers do.

***

If you see the Cubs select a college pitcher in the 17th round next June, I'll tell you four things about him right now. Four things that almost certainly apply to the amateur even before the Cubs start to negotiate with him. He works quickly. He changes speeds. He throws strikes. He fields his position well. While the team might take a flier on someone who deviates slightly from those trends, don't bet the rent on it.

The Cougars had a really good rotation (and bullpen, as well) because the expectation for Cubs pitchers is to do those above four things every time out. Not just as a Cougar. It is expected in Mesa. It will be expected in South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Eugene, as well as in the Dominican facility, and Iowa and Tennessee as well. It might not work every time, as baseball is a game of adjustments, and the other guys are pros, as well.

Duane Underwood didn't start working quickly after being harangued by Cubs coaches. Daury Torrez didn't have a light go on in his second pro season that maybe he should throw strikes rather regularly, instead of nibbling all the time. His first pitching tutor in Mesa was not the first time that Jen-Ho Tseng grasped the premise of changing speeds on his pitches. Paul Blackburn didn't require a per diem check to start fielding his position well.

The reason these four are Cubs in the first place is that they've been doing the basics of good pitching since the Cubs have been scouting them.

The Cubs are now among the leaders in the league in scouts looking at talent. This is a change from before, when the Cubs tended to be at the bottom of the league in scouts. Not near the bottom, but at the bottom. The team now is insisting on quality facilities from their affiliates, quality reports from their scouts and coaches, and they do still expect their players to be hard-working, results-driven professionals. They have the coaching and amenities to be really good players, and probably have similarly good medical staff and nutritionists helping them as well.

The Kane County Cougars won the Midwest League because they were the best squad in the league. It wasn't really close. The commitment to putting that team together wasn't an accident, but a standard for what is expected in the future. If a successful plan is pushed hard enough, and players, execs, coaches, and support staff buy into it, the success shouldn't be an isolated incident.

The 2013 Cougars team had the worst pitching statistics in the league. The 2014 Cougars had the best pitching in the league. The 2014 Cubs draft, which is now considered the Kyle Schwarber draft, loaded up on pitching both from the college and prep levels. These pitchers stayed in short-season ball. In other words, the recent crop of pitchers who abide by the basics of work quickly, change speeds, throw strikes, and field your position, will be on mounds in Eugene, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend next year.

We haven't seen them pitch yet, but with added MiLB.TV coverage next season, that will start to change come April. I expect they will do rather well, as the rest of the pitchers and hitters being added start to bubble up though the system as well. While the parent club finally has a legitimate chance at a successful season in 2015, the results should be getting better as time goes along.

Why?

The Cougars' success in 2014 isn't an accident. It is by design, and it is a design that has led to success for many teams throughout the ages, in many sports. Actually, it isn't even close to limited to sports. If you bring in quality talent whenever possible, train those people to do their job better than your opposition, and are innovative in looking to the future, that is a design that usually leads to success.

And next year, while you are enjoying the early fruits of the Cubs development process, I'll be minding the next batch of players to hopefully bring about success directly or indirectly. The Cubs are doing what successful organizations do. They are doing the little things right, and when you do the little things right, things usually work out alright. Because form usually follows function.