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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: Why pitching development has lagged

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Carl Edwards Jr. has been a success, but pitching development across the system is still behind.

Atlanta Braves v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On occasion, the last few years, a rather innocuous claim has gotten tossed around fairly often. Theo Epstein’s Cubs don’t develop pitching very well. What usually follows is an incredibly vague half-discussion on “what should be happening in the pitching development sector.” Or a notation that Epstein admitted it, himself. Midway through, something is mumbled about Kyle Hendricks “being added in a trade”, and the conversation is over. Epstein is considered guilty of developing pitching poorly. This is a bit of a closer look at the Cubs pitching development.

Pitching takes more time to develop than hitting. This applies both in individual cases, as well as longer-term trends. While Kris Bryant can be drafted second in the entire draft, and be as far as Advanced-A Ball by that September, pitchers need to have their advancement balanced with safety concerns.

The Cubs don’t traditionally use a first-year draftee over 20 innings in their draft year season. As such, while Bryant can “keep rapidly advancing until he finds a level that’s his equal”, a developing pitcher will get lifted from a successful start in the Midwest League in May after five or six innings. Even if he’s been better than the opposition.

The pitcher isn’t as likely to be “hurried along,” either. While Bryant sought the level that could limit his numbers, the hurler is being pushed into developing his third and fourth pitches. Many pitchers enter pro ball with only one or two usable pitches. The hurler is being channeled into “using his weaker offerings,” which makes his nightly outings look worse than they would have been.

His numbers suffer, and we wonder: “Why is he struggling so much this season?” To some extent, many pitchers suffer, not because they are bad at pitching, but they are trying to accomplish tasks they may never get good at. Without the third pitch, they become a reliever, and are considered “less than” by many.

***

When team leadership changed in late 2011, the Cubs prospect pipeline was largely broken. Players weren’t being properly developed. If a player had a question about what they needed to do to improve through the system, nobody necessarily had an answer for them. For certain, nobody had a computer file of their recent starts to compare and contrast success versus failure.

With the incoming executives, coaching became more valued. Scouts were added. The process was streamlined so that the player struggling could ask the Director of Player Development (Jaron Madison) what was necessary for him to advance.

Nonetheless, the progress has been a bit lurching. A few players have successful seasons. Then a few of those reach a level they can’t master. Because of that, and because Hendricks was added by trade, the new guys are considered poor at developing talent.

When the cynics are asked what the “average/ordinary team the Cubs should be compared to,” something vague is usually tossed off. For instance, Epstein’s tenure in Boston, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, or the St. Louis Cardinals. “Be successful at developing pitchers like them.”

***

Something those who over-simplify the problem generally fail to own up to is this. The 2011 Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers, and Cardinals generally had successful and balanced systems already. At that point in their development, “take the best available talent, regardless his position” was already their calling card. Which is what a quality pipeline ought to do.

The early 2012 Cubs had little usable pitching, and few exciting hitters. Since so much of the talent pool and technology was in tatters, the Cubs needed to use their draft picks to locate pitchers who were “usable” to provide stability for the system.

Most Cubs fans give no heed to the Short-Season affiliates, and understandably so. The fan wants to see good pitchers at the major-league level. When that happens, everything is marvelous. However, when the reliever walks the leadoff man in the ninth inning, a degree of anxiety goes to the executive’s booth at the game.

As much as we’d like players to be “drafted for major league success,” the process of turning a college or high school arm into a useful MLB option is an arduous one. The early-Epstein years required a degree of re-tooling that often goes unreported. Because talking about the Northwest League is considered boring by many.

Nonetheless, the next stop for this examination is Boise, Idaho.

***

Among the first stops for many Cubs prospects is the Northwest League. From 2001 to 2014, the Cubs were affiliate with the Boise Hawks. In 2015, the affiliation switched from Boise to Eugene, Oregon. Regardless, the importance of the Northwest League is a bit contrarian, but valid nonetheless.

Imagine a team has 12 good pitchers in the Northwest League at a certain point. How many of those should be able to be good, the next year at the Midwest League Level? Or a few years later in Double-A? “Ummmmm. Hmmmmmmmm.”

Eyes begin to glaze over, because nobody burns much thought over Northwest League level success. However, if a pitcher can’t get hitters out in the Northwest League, they likely won’t get them out in big league ball, either.

Carl Edwards Jr. pitched against the Cubs when they were in Boise, and he was CJ then. Still in the Rangers system, Edwards started against a soon-to-be contender for the Northwest League crown in August 2012.

Despite the presence of Jeimer Candelario, Marco Hernandez, and Dan Vogelbach, Edwards’ Spokane Indians pounded the Hawks that night 15-1 in Boise. Edwards was still a year from being dealt to the Cubs and three years from his first MLB pitch, and the Hawks needed to turn to a reserve catcher to save the bullpen that night.

That Edwards pitched well that night didn’t guarantee that he would have MLB success. However, pitchers who would routinely struggle in the same league would almost certainly end their careers short of the parent club. A team needs plenty of usable arms in the Northwest League, even though many will be unable to help the parent club in the future.

The Cubs, at the time of the executive shake-up, had plenty of pitchers in the “found wanting” area, and precious few in the “viable prospects for success” category in Boise. Today, I brought numbers.

In 2009, the Boise Hawks had an ERA of 4.76, which raked seventh in the Northwest League’s eight teams. Their WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) was 1.46, which ranked sixth. They fanned 531 batters, which ranked seventh, and walked 275, which ranked fourth.

What you will see below is a listing of how the Cubs Northwest affiliates have done in those rather basic categories that year and since, to provide a “before and after” look at the pipeline.

2009-11

City Season ERA ERA Rank WHIP WHIP Rank Walks Walks Rank Strikeouts Strikeouts Rank
City Season ERA ERA Rank WHIP WHIP Rank Walks Walks Rank Strikeouts Strikeouts Rank
Boise 2009 4.76 7 1.46 6 275 4 531 7
Boise 2010 4.43 7 1.42 7 254 3 564 8
Boise 2011 4.15 6 1.46 7 303 7 590 8

Stopping the chart for a moment, the Cubs pitching had struggled, by pretty much any measure, at the Northwest League level “under prior management.” They surrendered far too many base runners, and gave up far too many runs. Which indicates that the pool of players who might be good (eventually) up the ladder is probably a bit scant, as well.

As little direct value as “having 10 good pitchers in Boise” has to the parent club, having only two or three limits the likelihood of any of those options eventually producing in Wrigley, or as key trade pieces.

The Cubs needed to spend quite a few draft selections early to find enough players who were going to make the Boise staff usable. By adding more arms able to get outs in the Northwest League, more would potentially be better up-the-ladder, as well. Which limited the number of hitters the Cubs could select in those drafts.

Success in the Northwest League guarantees nothing. However, having a pitching staff that doesn’t record outs is unlikely to ever benefit the organization in any fashion.

The chart continues, this time with the years since Epstein took over.

2012-17

City Season ERA ERA Rank WHIP WHIP Rank Walks Walks Rank Strikeouts Strikeouts Rank
City Season ERA ERA Rank WHIP WHIP Rank Walks Walks Rank Strikeouts Strikeouts Rank
Boise 2012 4.50 8 1.49 8 285 8 544 7
Boise 2013 3.58 6 1.33 5 260 3(tie) 646 6
Boise 2014 4.43 6 1.40 5 252 4 615 5
Eugene 2015 3.55 2 1.23 2 234 2 691 1
Eugene 2016 3.24 1 1.30 2 316 7 680 1
Eugene 2017 3.24 2 1.26 3 270 6 761 2

***

It took three years, but the Cubs were finally able to put together a continuously solid pitching staff in the eight-team Northwest League. The players succeeding in Oregon are now helping to nourish the affiliates in South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Kodak (Tennessee), Des Moines, and, perchance, Chicago.

Developing an effective pitching pipeline isn’t as easy as changing a pair of pants. What types of individuals will be sought is one step. Getting the scouting pool to better identify those types is another. Getting them signed, and assessing a game plan for player improvement are two others. Keeping the players healthy is yet another angle that can greatly misfire.

One possible dispute on the above chart is as follows. “Is the ballpark in Eugene a more pitcher-friendly park than the facility in Boise?”

The pitching numbers dropped dramatically upon arrival in Oregon.

I don’t assess either Boise or Eugene as an extreme environment, either way. The Cubs hitters, aside from the ones who blow through the Northwest League on the way to a promotion, haven’t put up ridiculous numbers in either spot. Neither facility has particularly extreme measurements. If the batter’s eye were unacceptable, the school (Eugene plays at the University o f Oregon facility) would change the background.

***

None of this will be enough for most fans. They want immediate upgrades at the big league level. That is accomplished by major trades or free agency additions. However, if they want noticeable systemic improvements, these are the numbers they should be looking for.

After tweaking the player acquisition and improvement systems, the Cubs are now producing better pitching. Slowly, which is how pitching improvements display themselves. If the pitching is considered “largely repaired,” more hitters can be added, starting in June.

Similarly, here are some recently-won minor league titles the Cubs have recently claimed.

2017: Arizona Summer League
2016: Carolina League, Northwest League, Arizona Fall League
2015: Carolina League
2014: Midwest League
2013: Florida State League

This discussion isn’t finished. A Part Two will follow evenually looking more specifically who was drafted, and who might have made more sense in some of those spots. However, realize that a draft selection is made on a specific day, and the information available then is the most important factor on his selection.

If the Cubs had a system with deep pitching at the lower end in 2011 when Epstein took over, his drafts could look different. He’d have been drafting more like the teams that historically draft well.

Perhaps he’d have selected a hard-throwing pitcher early, if he’d recently won a World Series in Chicago. However, he hadn’t. And looked nowhere near ready to. Which is why the Cubs haven’t drafted four of the top six picks as hitters since before Epstein’s arrival.

The Cubs haven’t drafted pitchers perfectly since arrival. However, as a person who listens to games in the pipeline rather regularly, I’m having a hard time prioritizing starting pitching options. Too many are worth monitoring. That hasn’t always been the case.

You can continue to claim that the Cubs draft and develop pitching poorly. However, it might help if you brought numbers about what an average/ordinary team gets in a draft, regularly, to do so.