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Cubs minor leagues: Three up, three down and pitch counts

Once guys in the system can ramp up their pitch counts, they can more readily be promoted.

Michael Rucker
Dylan Heuer

The Cubs have had two starting pitchers at Low-A start fairly well at the lower levels. While some people in the universe are much better at pitch assessing than I am, I tend to be very step-by-step. “Is this pitcher younger than his level?“ “Is he pitching better than his level?” They’re very basic thoughts, and possibly time-consuming, but it’s my preference of methods. If a pitcher is better than a level, at some point, he figures to get promoted.

With DJ Herz and Richard Gallardo, a promotion for them now would be counter-productive. In a recent article, I looked briefly at innings-to-starts in the Yankees pipeline. If a pitcher at the lower levels isn’t tossing five innings per outing consistently, leave him there. Let him build up, at that level, against that quality of hitter. If, later in the season, he’s steadily 80 pitches or more over five of six starts, and he’s still doing well, move him up.

Struggles and successes are both important for pitchers. So far, Herz’ pitch counts have been 37, 43, 50, and 60. When he hit 60 last Wednesday night, he was lifted with fist bumps and hand slaps all around. Development is figuring out what works best for improving that player, and working from there. Gallardo has gone 41, 49, 40, 74. Other pitchers in the system, like Ryan Jensen and Max Bain (on the completely opposite side of the “bonus signing” spectrum) are about getting in more pitches than the last time. In 2021, that’s really important. Even normally prevailing concepts like “mastering specific pitches” might be less important than steadily building up arm strength.

The problem is, once you buy into the importance of pitch counts, you become a different figured toy. Most of use are familiar with a toy toddlers play with: One hole fits the square toy. One fits the circle. One fits the star. Those of us who buy into development by pitch count are that dopey pentagon-shaped one. Such is life. Developing players aren’t the only pitchers for whom pitch counts matter. The reliever who pops over 20 in a day is rather unlikely tomorrow. Thirty pitches make pitching tomorrow unlikely, with forty-plus limiting the likelihood for the next day. Once safety becomes a watchword, once baseball players cease being traveling marauders as marionettes for our pleasure, it is what is is.

In certain outlier situations, focusing too much on “general player health” reduces significantly the interest in “inning games” and “basic survival” kicks in. I may have a bit more to talk about that below.

Three Up

1) One of my favorite parts of this season has been hearing how to pronounce Yohendrick Pinango. The Venezuelan pronounces it (something awfully close to Yo-heed-rick Pea-yan-go). Now, my internal voice has something to build on. Pinango has been among the best hitters on a surprisingly good Myrtle Beach Pelicans squad. They hadn’t hit much, as a team, until this week. (It’s been fun hearing the opponent’s radio stating surprise at how well they’ve hit.). However, Pinango has ramped up his learning curve early on. At 2.4 years younger than the average hurler he’s faced, his OPS is .680.

The league average OPS is available on Baseball Reference. However, to truly assess the value and accuracy of on-base plus slugging, strength of schedule almost has to be considered. Some teams at Low-A have very credible pitching staffs. Some are fine one through seven. And some seem to have limited interest or ability in field quality teams at certain levels. The Pelicans have played the first, third, sixth, and eighth teams in WHIP in the league. (Part of that is, arguably, playing Myrtle Beach.) Pinango’s OPS+, based on league average alone, is .680/.691, or 98 — at two years below average age level. He belongs at the level, and might be better than the level, soon.

2) The Iowa Cubs pitching staff may eventually run out of quality, but it hasn’t happened yet. Former Rule 5 loss (to Baltimore) Michael Rucker, since returned, is becoming a three-pitch threat, at least in Triple-A. His fastball is mid-nineties. He has a splitter, and his breaking ball draws swings and misses.

Rucker’s seasonal numbers, as a multi-inning reliever, are reasonably impressive, as well. In a league with an average WHIP of 1.382, and ERA of 4.48, Rucker is at 1.125 and 3.38.

3) Ben Leeper is another undrafted free agent from the 2020 Draft class. Unselected in the five-round process, Leeper chose to turn pro instead of returning to college ball for the 2021 campaign. Low-key sent to Double-A to debut, his numbers have been ridiculous. The 6-footer from Bedford, Texas has pitched in 11 innings over eight games. He’s allowed five hits and four walks, fanning 14. His ERA is a minute 0.82, but he’s 1-2 on the season, in large part due to extra inning rules.

I’m not calling to have Leeper hurried up to Triple-A, but if the numbers continue as they have been, his time will come soon enough. For now, having Leeper around in the upper minors is another positive in the selection/development side of the Cubs pitching.

Three Down

1) Injuries across baseball are worsening the product. Players who should be in Triple-A are in MLB, forcing upward ascendance that hasn’t necessarily been earned. Not every team has been ravaged by injuries. For those that have, it hasn’t necessarily been at every level. In Saturday’s Tennessee Smokies game, 40-man roster pitcher Manuel Rodriguez was lifted due to an injury in the ninth inning. About ten minutes later, outfielder Zach Davis walked into a fastball up in the zone trying to bunt. The ball hit his helmet, and Davis was lifted. Which means another player being moved above where he should be, to fill in for another injured player.

2) Since many of the injuries are happening to pitchers, more pitchers are getting innings above their level of proven competence. Which leads to more walks, and the number of hit bastmen continue to rise. Since “high gas” is the prevalent coaching default, the hit batsmen figure to be more hands, wrists, and helmets, and fewer down in the thigh and buttocks area. I’m being more driven by expectations and what I’ve seen, rather than empirical data, but it seems applicable so far.

3) Toss in that, starting this season, teams are limited to the number of players in a pipeline, and it gets worse. Teams have always had a loose “limit” on how many players they could have in the pipeline. This cycle, that number is mandated across MLB. Teams can have 180 players in their compound, up through their four affiliates. That sounds like an immense number, especially with players on “optional assignment” (on the 40-man roster, but not on the parent club) exempted from the 180. However, every player on the seven day injured list at any level is one more player promoted from the Mesa compound (for instance), where Extended Spring Training starts soon.

A quick look at the four Cubs affiliates sees four injured players in Myrtle Beach (plus one on the 60-day injured list), seven in South Bend (plus five on the 60 and three suspended), ten for Tennessee (plus two on the 60, and neither injury from Saturday accounted for), and one for the I-Cubs. That means 22 players on the 180-player list are injured, with more likely to be added, soon. The 180 drops off rather quickly, and the players in camp are being shuttled off when the plan was for them to start getting ready for the league they’re being groomed for.

Once the short season leagues begin, with the probable injuries there (because, why wouldn’t they?), the front office will have to be playing Roster Jenga with players in the compound leagues. Thank goodness Rob Manfred will fix the problem of injuries before players are being used in games when they’re injured to get through the game. Or, maybe, Travis Wood can play an entire game in left field in the Arizona Summer League.

Yeah, being that pentagonal piece in the shapes box might not be advised.