A special thanks to Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development for graciously answering questions about Cubs prospects and Player Development operations.
Prelude: The opportunity to gain any insight into the inner workings of a major league organization has always been a fascination of mine. Ever since I was able to attend the occasional Cubs Convention and get a chance to ask questions of the Player Development staff or ask former Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken for a few moments of his time, the ability to peak behind the curtain was one that I cherished. Even when I wasn’t the one directing the questions, I never miss a podcast or interview with scouting or player development Cubs executives. Writing has opened up additional communication avenues, allowing for more open conversation about prospects and the player development or scouting infrastructure. I hope to bring that to the audience who shares that same drive to lean more about the inner workings of the Cubs organization.
Cubs Director of Player Development, Bobby Basham, provided an insightful look into the Cubs plans for the 2021 season. You can check that interview out here. In part 2 of our interview, our discussion naturally shifted to discuss specific players. I was intrigued not only in the progress that some players made throughout the shutdown, but also for broad views of how the Cubs plan to work with player(s) in future development.
With a track record of targeting polished college players, Ryan Jensen represented a relative surprise as the first-round pick in 2019. In doing so, the Cubs tipped their hand that they were willing to continue their 2018 path of being more intentional in bringing in higher upside developmental prospects. Jensen has to be one of the most fascinating players in the organization.
Ryan Jensen debuted in 2019 with a heavy reliance on his fastballs. Armed with both an electric 2-seam fastball with natural sink and an upper 90s (touching 100mph) four-seam, Jensen was able to succeed in college often with those two pitches. His slider also showed above-average to plus movement when commanded well. There was a changeup that was present but lagged behind the other offerings. The Cubs development staff have been helping pitchers build out their full arsenal, and Jensen is a vital member of that group. Based on reports from The Athletic, it became clear that Jensen was working on developing a curveball. I asked Basham if this new breaking ball was a “spike-curve” like those adopted by Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, and Riley Thompson (among many others in the Cubs system) or a more traditional curveball.
[Jensen] has used this spike curve and with that guy, anything that comes out of his hands is going to be power, right?Bobby Basham
In addition to describing a curveball as “a perfect fit for that arsenal”, Bobby Basham confirmed that what Jensen is throwing is, indeed, a spike-curve, but he also added in some important context into how the Cubs view breaking ball pitch design. “[Jensen] has used this spike curve and with that guy, anything that comes out of his hands is going to be power, right? So with [a pitcher like Jensen], what is a traditionally curve verses a spike-curve?” Basham continued, “The point is for him to find a weapon he feels comfortable with that compliments his other three potential plus pitches. And we feel like he’s done a lot of good work and that’s just going to open up and make everything better.”
An in vogue metric in pitching development is the concept of measuring a pitcher’s “vertical approach angle” or VAA. Upcoming guest, Mason McRae, provided a breakdown of the concept in this article on Baseball Cloud, but, simply, the metric refers to the angle a ball enters the hitting zone (measured in degrees). It is primarily a fastball statistic. A pitcher’s VAA is almost always a negative and the closer that angle is to 0 the more it is described as having a “flat VAA”. Fastballs thrown with flat VAA up in the zone correlate to increased swing and miss based on college level data (which is the only data publicly available on VAAs). An example of a Cubs pitcher with a relatively flat VAA is Tyson Miller.
I asked Bobby if the Cubs pitching development infrastructure was working to emphasize a flat vertical approach angle with Ryan Jensen amongst others. According to Basham, “They’re all snowflakes, man. They’re all unique. Jensen’s the rare guy who really spins a fastball. With this four-seam grip and (it’s probably what you’re talking about a little bit) using a more vertical arsenal, we can’t run away from the fact that he’s got this power 2-seam fastball/sinker. That’s not what is in vogue right now, but that’s going to be a huge weapon for him. So that is one of those guys, especially as a starter, we hope can can do both. If he can ride the fastball up in the zone with his four seam and and run a pretty dirty, late-moving, high velocity 2-seam in on righties, [we hope he will] really be able to have the two play off each other.” Basham said.
The 40-man roster decisions represent an annual bellwether, of sorts, for determining which advancing prospects have truly taken “the next step”. The 2020 decision included two no-doubt decisions in Christopher Morel and Cory Abbott. Morel represents an exciting prospect who many publications rank somewhere in the Cubs top 10. Abbott is a former organizational minor league pitcher of the year and has a good chance to log big league innings at Wrigley in 2021. But a third 40-man spot was given to Keegan Thompson.
Bobby added context and an exciting update about Thompson, “I think we’re really excited about Keegan. He looked really good at the Alt site. He added a lot of power to his slider/cutter and this power curveball. And it just [made the Cubs realize] this is a guy who could always pitch and move the ball around and sort of ‘out think’ hitters. Now he’s added some power swinging stuff.” Basham said. The addition of “power swinging stuff” could significantly improve Keegan’s future outlook. I’ve previously said that it would not surprise me to see Keegan Thompson carve out a solid career pitching near the back of a rotation similar to Brad Peacock. Health becomes Thompson’s biggest obstacle, but I’ll stick with that assertion, especially after Basham’s pitch development updates.
Building through Shortstops
It’s a common saying that “an organization can’t have too many shortstops” and the Cubs have clearly prioritized bringing in shortstops through multiple avenues (Ed Howard-draft; Preciado and Santana via trade; Hernandez in IFA) over the past year. I asked if that was an intentional philosophy of the Cubs.
According to Basham, “I think we’re in the business of bringing in good players. So, you’re talking about Ed [Howard] and [Cristian] Hernandez and Preciado and Santana. When you have the opportunity to just bring in good players, regardless of position, regardless of what you have in your system, you do it. And those are some really high ceiling guys.” Basham said. “It’s about building those guys from the ground up and leaning on our high performance department and our hitting infrastructure and what Justin Stone has done there to build complete players. And if we get lucky and all those guys can stay at shortstop and really pick it, then we’re in a really good spot. And, the good thing about [playing] shortstop is when they get moved down a position it’s still valuable if they [play] second or third or center, right?”
Bobby went on to provide some details about several of the players in the shortstop pipeline. Though all the comments were positive, I wanted to highlight a few that resonated with me personally.
“When I speak to Ed, we’re just incredibly impressed by the person and the work ethic and the strides he’s made. We feel awesome about that [selection]”.Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development
I will confess that Andy Weber is a personal favorite of mine within the Cubs system. So when I had the chance to speak directly with Bobby Basham about how the Cubs view Weber, I jumped at it. While I would offer the caveat that it would be unlikely for a front office executive to say anything negative about a player on the record, I was struck by how effusive Basham was in his praise of Andy Weber. “I think he’s a guy that the more you see him, the more he grows on you and the more you appreciate his talents. He does a lot of things really well, including catch the baseball. I’m so excited to see him take a step forward in 2021. Because this is the type of guy that you wake up and he has a 10 year big league career and he’s put a lot of WAR on the board and you can’t actually put your finger on it. I’m hoping that really happens for him and if it does, it will be a byproduct of how hard he’s worked and how much he’s put into it.”
While fans await the return of baseball, these notes about the Chicago Cubs organization’s future should offer significant excitement. Without a minor league season in 2020, the early stages of the 2021 upcoming minor league season will be tumultuous. Still, it will be exciting to see where players have progressed during the shutdown. I want to thank Bobby Basham for taking the time to offer his thoughts on players within the system while fans wait for the beginning of an unforgettable 2021 season.