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Cubs change pitching development philosophy

January 24, 2019

The manner in which the Cubs' front office went about overhauling the franchise is no secret. There was a distinct focus on position players in the upper tiers of the Draft, leaving trades and free agency as the primary avenues for finding impact pitching.The consequence of that approach has been

The manner in which the Cubs' front office went about overhauling the franchise is no secret. There was a distinct focus on position players in the upper tiers of the Draft, leaving trades and free agency as the primary avenues for finding impact pitching.
The consequence of that approach has been a lack of homegrown arms -- a subject that is hardly lost on the leaders of the club's player development department. There has been a change in development structure behind the scenes, however, and the Cubs believe that they finally do have an intriguing group of arms beginning to develop and emerge as future Major League talent.
"It's just on us. We can't just keep celebrating Kris Bryant in the 2013 Draft," said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. "It's so obvious that it's not even an elephant in the room. It's something that drives us every day."
McLeod added that "this is the best" he has felt about the state of the Cubs' arms since coming over to the club prior to the 2012 season. Much of that confidence stems from a change in philosophy in how the team is handling its pitching prospects. The kid gloves are off, so to speak. When and where it makes sense, the Cubs plan on pushing their arms, rather than being overly protective via pitch counts and innings limitations.
In the early years of this front office's takeover, McLeod said the group was admittedly too conservative with some of the arms in the system. He cited Dylan Cease (now in the White Sox system), Paul Blackburn (currently with the A's) and Cubs prospect Duane Underwood Jr. (taken in the second round of the 2012 Draft) as three pitchers who fall into that category.

Underwood started one game for the Cubs last season, making him one of four pitchers selected by the Cubs since 2012 to log any Major League innings with the team. In total, the Cubs have only received 0.2 WAR (Baseball Reference) from arms taken in the Draft under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Co.
"I think as we thought about pitching, we tried to fit everyone neatly into a box," McLeod said. "Do these mechanics lead to what we think is going to be long-term health, and has he thrown enough strikes that we think the prior performance is going to equal this type of performance going forward? So we put so many checks on guys, I feel, that we probably walked by some guys that didn't meet certain criteria at the time.
"That's what I meant by being probably a little too conservative. We wanted them to check so many boxes. Strike throwers who we thought were going to be healthy, that had this type of performance -- whether it be strikeout rate, whether it be walk rate -- and that probably hamstrung us a little bit."
McLeod said they were probably too structured in how they handled Years 3-4 of a pitcher's progression.
"We probably could've pushed guys in our early days," McLeod said. "I think, as we sit here five or six years later, I think that -- not to be egregious about anything -- but we're probably being a little more aggressive."
McLeod said a shift towards wanting to take the organization's foot off the brakes began with Derek Johnson, who left his role as the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator after the 2015 season. It continued with Jim Brower (now with the Mariners) and is again a focus of Brendan Sagara, who is entering his second season in the position.
The Cubs have a pitching lab in which they are using technology and data to study and implement some of these changes. They are discussing ways to help pitchers last a full season (an example would be building in skipped starts rather than having innings caps). The team is valuing having its young arms learn how to pitch when fatigued but also holding velocity. There is also an understanding that innings limits do not work across the board. An efficient pitcher will get to a threshold in a different manner than a less-efficient arm.

McLeod rattled off the names of Justin Steele (fifth round in 2014), Thomas Hatch (third round in '16), Tyson Miller (fourth round in '16), Duncan Robinson (ninth round in '16), Dakota Mekkes (10th round in '16) and Keegan Thompson (third round in '17) as draftees that have been impressing. Adbert Alzolay (an international signing in '12) is the Cubs' No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline and will be on the MLB radar this season, too.
"We're banking on good health, but I think we're going to push these guys now," McLeod said. "[There's] an urgency in doing something to impact the organization, not being complacent, not being safe, not being conservative. It doesn't mean pushing someone who's not ready for it, but I also think there is going to be more of a, 'Let them show themselves that they're ready to help us.'"

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.