Brown filling versatile role for Cubs' pitching staff

June 9th, 2024

CINCINNATI -- 's knuckle-curve has been one of the most valuable pitches in baseball this season. The Cubs' rookie features his signature breaking ball more than one-third of the time and has generated whiffs at an elite rate with the offering.

In a 4-3 loss to the Reds on Saturday, two misplaced curveballs by Brown resulted in a pair of costly home runs.

“Two mistake breaking balls,” Brown said. “I just have to do a better job of just executing that pitch a little bit lower, and not just throwing get-me-overs, and attack counts.”

Those two pitches -- one launched for a solo shot by Jeimer Candelario in the first inning and another belted to right for a two-run shot by TJ Friedl in the third -- carried weight due to the thin margin for error created by Chicago’s still-slumping offense. The Cubs had plenty of chances, but finished 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and saw a ninth-inning rally fall flat.

So, Brown’s name wound up in the loss column for a Cubs team that has now dropped 12 of their last 16 games. In reality, it was not a poor outing by the rookie right-hander. Brown kept Chicago within striking distance for four frames before turning the ball over to fellow rookie, lefty .

Wicks returned from the injured list on Friday following a left forearm issue and logged 3 1/3 solid innings in relief behind Brown on Saturday. It was not only Wicks’ first relief outing in the big leagues, but he only had starts to his name in the Minors and in his collegiate years. Brown has also bounced between starting and relieving this season with strong results.

“It's challenging, for sure,” Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson said of the pitchers moving between roles. “You never really prepare in the Minor Leagues to have multiple roles like that. But, they've done it really well. They don't complain, which is a really big part. Ben is a true competitor, watching how he goes about his business.

“And he's a joy to be around and somebody that you know you're going to get his best effort out of on the mound. Whether it's in the bullpen or as a starter, he just kind of says, 'Give me the ball and I'll go,' so it's fun to play behind.”

Wicks joked that there is a name for that type of hybrid role now.

“We call it the Javier Assad method,” Wicks said. “You try to be as effective out of the ‘pen as you are starting, because it is not easy. But I think the beauty of being able to do that, especially as young guys, is hopefully to give us some flexibility as a team and to give them the ability to do whatever it is they want to do to try and help us win games.”

Last season, Assad filled that versatile role for the Cubs’ pitching staff and was as effective as a starter (3.02 ERA in 53 2/3 innings across 10 starts) as he was out of the bullpen (3.07 ERA in 55 2/3 innings in 22 relief outings). This year, Assad earned a spot in the Opening Day rotation and has not looked back, logging a 2.74 ERA in 13 starts.

Brown has racked up 21 strikeouts against five walks in 16 1/3 innings in seven relief appearances this season. His 4.41 ERA out of the bullpen is skewed by the six runs he allowed in his MLB debut on March 30 in Texas. Including his start on Saturday, Brown has a 3.23 ERA with 43 strikeouts and 14 walks in 39 innings as a starter (eight games).

“He's made progress just as a pitcher,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “And the more he's out there, the more progress he'll make going into the future. We have put him in a number of roles. That's often the nature of how young pitching works. And he's done excellent in each of those roles.”

Brown said he and Wicks have already started chatting about handling different roles, too.

“We've had little conversations here and there,” Brown said. “And we’ve got some really awesome dudes down there, too, that are going to help him out with that. But I told him some pretty valuable stuff that I learned along the way, too. I’m sure we’ll be back and forth with each other moving forward.”