One of the jobs of the front office is to be able to adequately account for a reasonable number of injuries during a season. A chief part of that is to have a reasonable number of Triple-A starting pitchers that can fill in, as needed, at the major league level. With a contending team like the Cubs, it’s reasonable to expect the Iowa Cubs to be able to provide for three or four options in the rotation, as needed. Before the All-Star break, Adbert Alzolay filled in, with varying levels of success. Faced with needing another substitution, Alec Mills gets the call this time. Why Alec Mills?
Mills pitched seven times for the Cubs last season, including two starts. His WHIP was 1.000, his earned run average was 4.00, and that little bit of familiarity is an edge over a random fill-in. Despite his adequate numbers in 18 MLB innings last season, his Triple-A numbers this season appear a bit less inspiring. His Pacific Coast League ERA in 2019 is 4.73. You’re allowed to be concerned. However, it was worse earlier.
The MLB homer explosion in 2019 has been mirrored by one in both Triple-A Leagues, as well. The I-Cubs were a distant 16th in the PCL last season with 79. This season, the I-Cubs have already smashed 124, and only one team is below 100. Omaha (the Kansas City affiliate) has 95. The I-Cubs have scored 487 runs in 94 games, after 526 in 138 last season. Pitching numbers are ugly in the PCL this year, regardless.
After his May 24 start against Omaha, in which Mills was hit for five earned runs on 15 hits (with three walks), Mills’ ERA was up to 8.01. He might have led a few “DFA this guy” lists, at the time. What has keyed his reversal? “It’s been a combination of much better fastball command, and adding a mile or two on the fastball,” says Iowa Cubs announcer Alex Cohen. “Toss in a better change of pace with his change-of-pace eephus curveball that keeps hitters off-balance, and he’s been much better.”
“Did he say eephus?”
Mills calls it a stop-change, but you’ll see it on Tuesday. It’s... different. In his last eight starts, he’s gone at least six innings seven times, giving up fewer than four runs in six of them, and no more than four in any. The ball hasn’t changed. The weather has gotten more hitter-friendly. Mills has been better. Much better. Paired with Alzolay being in a skid, Tyson Miller getting used to Triple-A, and no immediate desire to make a 40-man roster move, Mills seems a solid choice.
Added in February 2017 in a swap for the since-re-acquired Donnie Dewees (Mills’ teammate in Des Moines), Mills will be out of minor-league options next season. If he represents as useful down the stretch, he seems a useful keep for 2020. If not, he could be swapped out for Colin Rea, who is a bit similar to Mills.
One final reason to not use Rea over Mills is MLB’s decision to nix waiver trades in August and September. Teams will still be permitted to make minor league trades. As Rea is off the 40-man, a team that has a sudden injury rash in August can still trade for Rea, if he isn’t on the 40-man roster. Rea has been better across the season than Mills, and might hold some trade intrigue in an emergency to a contender. Or, he can be left in the PCL until needed in late August or September for the Cubs.
Mills will show you a pitch you rarely see. He has a realistic chance of tossing five innings, keeping the Cubs in the game. He hasn’t pitched since the seventh. Enjoy the game. Take a few notes if inclined, and enjoy the stop-change. Or eephus, if you prefer it that way. Mills is pitching well, on the 40 already, and has pitched well in Wrigley before. He’s the right call.