Years ago, I was watching a video that may still be in existence on You Tube, or elsewhere. The premise was whether the Cubs would ever make the World Series. Toward the finish, as I remember, Steve Stone quipped that, if it ever would happen, it would require something happening that nobody expected would happen. On the night the Cubs went to the World Series, the second piece in a quickly cobbled together trade pitched one of the best starts in Cubs post-season history. Is the premise of getting more pitchers to have Kyle-Hendricks-like success a thing that can be repeated?
The thrown-together trade was the Ryan Dempster trade. The key piece in the trade was Christian Villanueva, who’s having a very good season early for the San Diego Padres. Any team could have had him, along the line. However, the Padres guessed right, signing him as a free agent after the Cubs let him go following the 2016 season.
Kyle Hendricks’ success, though, confounds people.
Pitchers are supposed to succeed because of high-90s velocity. Hendricks often sits in the high 80s.
Hendricks seems thought of as an outlier. His success must be a sort of fluke.
On the other hand, when a pitcher can successfully throw three or four pitches for strikes, especially in multiple locations, the hitter has difficulty.
Back in the day, John Tudor frustrated hitters in a similar fashion. In an era before radar gun readings were readily posted on the screen, the left-handed throwing Tudor tossed 10 shutouts in 1985. His career bWAR was 34.3.
He threw off-speed stuff on top of off-speed stuff.
I’m convinced that “pitchers” can still have success in current-day baseball.
The fun part about trying to mimic Hendricks’ success is that it’s easy to locate a laboratory to see if it works. The lab is “the minor league pipeline,” and the willing participants are a forward-thinking organization, and their minor league arms.
As teams have 40 rounds to select talent every draft, not all will be pitchers. Nor will all the pitchers be arms that routinely reside in the mid-90s. Those are preferable, oftentimes. However, if you watch enough college baseball games (It doesn’t take many), you realize that most of the amateur pitchers don’t throw regularly in the mid-90s.
After those get picked out in the early rounds, teams decide what they’re after for filling their system rosters.
The Cubs have been very willing to go with “extreme strike thrower” types. Some of these haven’t had high velocity grades. They have met with varied levels of success.
Paul Blackburn was the Cubs third draft choice in the Theo Epstein era. He 90-92’d his way to Double-A in the Cubs system before being dealt with Dan Vogelbach in the Mike Montgomery trade. After a degree of success in 2017 at the MLB level, Blackburn is currently on the disabled list, likely out till the end of this month.
Another along those lines has been Preston Morrison, drafted in the eighth round by the Cubs in 2015. He was very useful in South Bend and Myrtle Beach the next season, but Double-A hitters have caught up to him.
Duncan Robinson was a similar choice in 2016. So similar, he was drafted from the same college as Hendricks. Robinson came from Dartmouth in the ninth round of 2016’s process. He is in Double-A now.
To an extent, Keegan Thompson is a bit similar. He had success in the very respected Southeastern Conference, and was a third-rounder in 2017. Thompson skipped over the Midwest League, jumping directly to the Carolina League. Thompson is normally in the 88-92 range with his swiftie.
Can the Cubs get some distance out of “repertoire throwers” into the future?
It’s not really a secret that the scouts with their radar guns are enamored with velocity. If velocity is highly valued, throwing in the upper-80s or low-90s could be under-appreciated.
Since the Cubs system seems ripe for developing repertoire arms, taking a few more low-end gambles might make sense come June. Particularly ballasted by a few hard-throwers. The international scene can be used either, as well.
As the draft approaches, a misrepresentation is that college players are easily roped into “is good” or “is bad” rather simply. While a player that has struggled as a collegiate player is unlikely to be drafted, the ones that have done well in school get assessed, researched, and prioritized.
It’s not as easy as “these guys are good” and “these guys are of no value.”
Many college players would improve, given a professional organization encouraging their development. The draft research is designed to tell which specific ones would be most likely to develop well enough to improve the pipeline the most.
One of the ways the Cubs seem to be doing that is by peppering in a few repertoire pitchers into the mix.
To see how many times lightning can strike the same spot.
Which is how my article resided in the “article queue” for about a week. Likely driving my editor to distraction. “Is he going to finish it, or not?”
Then came Monday night, April 30.
Luke Farrell came out of the Cubs bullpen to quell the heart of the Rockies order. Shortly thereafter, he was rewarded with a relief win, that was actually deserved. Since then? Well, you know.
Farrell is a DFA claim who briefly pitched better in Chicago than Des Moines.
The same night, the Adbert Alzolay meter jumped from “remotely interesting” to “why isn’t he a Top 100 prospect?”
A few days earlier, Matt Swarmer (Yeah, I know. Who?) made his fourth start of the season for Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. He’s now tossing it at 91-94, and scouts are inquiring about him. Thanks to a vicious change-up.
Not only does this link show what is being seen by hitters, but you also catch the back-end of a story from Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg, who educates each night.
Swarmer was a 19th round choice in 2016 from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
If a pitcher gets a chance, and listens to his coaches, he can get better. Better than you might expect.
The pitcher that’s successful isn’t the one with the most hype. The pitcher that’s successful is the one that records out.
In the 2013 draft, Mark Appel went first. Zack Godley went 288th.
Kyle Hendricks is replicable, to an extent. Many times over. Which is among the joys of following minor league baseball.