It’s been a long road for Underwood since the Cubs took him in the second round of the 2012 draft. That was the Theo Epstein front office’s first draft, the same one in which the Cubs selected Albert Almora Jr., Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn in the first round. All three of those players are currently in the majors and now Underwood joins them. David Bote was also in that draft class, making an impressive five major leaguers to reach the majors, although so far only Almora has really made a positive impact.
When the Cubs drafted Underwood out of a high school in Georgia, you could say three things about him. He was young, promising and inconsistent. It’s now six years later and Underwood is less young, less promising and less inconsistent. But in the larger scheme of things, Underwood is still young, promising and inconsistent.
Underwood struggled his first two years in the minor leagues. Most of the problem was the control issues that plagued him throughout his prep career. But there were a lot of questions about his work ethic and fitness at that time. I don’t want to make too much of this — Underwood was still 17 when he signed his first professional contract, but his career didn’t really take off until reaching Kane County in 2014. It was at that point that he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to just get by with raw talent like he did in high school. He lost 25 pounds and also learned to control his emotions on the mound. I really haven’t heard anyone knock his work ethic since then, so we should just chalk that up to being young.
Underwood made 21 starts for the Cougars in 2014, throwing 100.2 innings and posting a 2.50 ERA. He struck out 84 and walked 36. That got him named by Baseball America as the 10th-best prospect in a loaded Cubs farm system. (Eight of the nine listed ahead of him are currently in the majors, including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, etc.)
Underwood’s 2015 season started off just as well in High-A Myrtle Beach, but he missed six weeks in July and August with “forearm tightness.” Often that’s a euphemism for a torn ulnar collateral ligament and Tommy John surgery, but the test came back clean on Underwood and he was back to finish the season. He made 16 starts in 2015 (14 in Myrtle Beach and two rehab starts in Mesa) and put up an even better ERA of 2.41. In 73⅓ innings, Underwood struck out 48 and walked 24. That’s a slight improvement in the walk totals, but a big drop-off in strikeout percentage. BA ranked Underwood as the fourth-best prospect in the Cubs system after 2015, but the rise was more due to a lot of players ahead of him graduating to the majors rather than his injury-shortened season.
The injury of 2015 foreshadowed his 2016 campaign, when he again missed time with forearm tightness and a sore elbow. When he was on the mound, he didn’t pitch well. Whether it was just the injuries, the increase in competition or his youth (Underwood was still just 21 in Double-A Tennessee in 2016), he had the worst season of his career.
Underwood stayed healthy in 2017, but he still struggled in Double-A. He made 24 starts and pitched a career-high 138 innings, but strikeout totals stayed low and he only cut his walks down a bit. His ERA of 4.43 was not promising,
It was a bit surprising that Underwood started this year in Triple-A Iowa since he really hadn’t shown that he had mastered Tennessee yet. Now 23, Underwood has had the best season of his career, even if his ERA of 4.27 doesn’t show it. The biggest improvement Underwood has made has been in cleaning up his mechanics and getting a more consistent delivery. His walk percentage is at a career-low and his strikeout percentage is at a career-high. Underwood is also going deeper into games and he’s showing more stamina as a starter than he has before. The poor ERA can be attributed in part to some disastrous starts at altitude in Reno and Colorado Springs, but also to an I-Cubs defense that isn’t doing pitchers many favors. There’s a bad start or two in there that can’t be blamed on altitude or defense though. Underwood is still young and learning.
When Underwood is on and repeating his delivery, his fastball will sit in the 91 to 95 mph area and has been clocked as high as 97. The fastball doesn’t have a ton of movement on it though, so will need his curve and his changeup to get out major-league hitters. When either pitch is on, they are above-average pitches. For the first time, those off-speed pitchers are on more often than not for him this year. But repeating his mechanics and control and command are going to be issues for him. It’s what Underwood needs to overcome if he wants to be a No. 3 starter in the majors. The talent is there, but the consistency is not yet there. Still, it’s been a lot better in 2018, which is why he’s getting the start tonight.
Here’s some video of Underwood striking out a Storm Chasers batter back in May.
That was from one of Underwood’s better outings of the year when he went 6⅔ innings without allowing a run and got the win over Omaha. He’ll find Dodgers batters to be much tougher than Storm Chaser hitters, but if he trusts his stuff and can keep his mechanics straight, he’s got enough raw talent to give the Cubs a good chance to snap this losing streak.