The Cubs Way
The Chicago Cubs aren’t known for their organizational success in drafting pitchers. Duane Underwood Jr, second round pick in 2012, has pitched the most innings for the team in anyone drafted by the organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the reigns in 2011. That inning total that Underwood Jr. threw before being traded to Pittsburgh only amounted to 36 1/3 innings. The sheer lack of pitching developed from start to finish by the Cubs is almost unfathomable. It should be noted that the Cubs have developed pitchers both at the minor and major league level, even if they weren’t drafted by the team. Kyle Hendricks, Rowan Wick, Alec Mills were all acquired in trades and took developmental steps to have major league success. Adbert Alzolay was an international free agent in 2012. After years of battling injuries, Alzolay appears to be taking the necessary steps to succeed in a major league rotation. However, a team can’t sustain success without drafting and developing homegrown pitching. The Chicago Cubs have been keenly aware of this fact ever since 2016 when Theo Epstein commented that he had “Find Pitching” scribbled on a white board in the office. Years of first prioritizing college hitters in early rounds followed by drafting “safe” college arms has produced very little impact. Drastic steps needed to be taken, and they were taken, when the team shifted organizational philosophies starting in 2018 before being fully realized a year later.
Disclaimer: Every major league organization uses some form of draft model and metrics to compare and rank both hitters and pitchers. This isn’t meant to reverse-engineer the Cubs draft model, but rather to highlight a few components of that model that may pertain to players selected. Teams also have access to far more biodynamic and proprietary data.
Pitching Metrics to Consider
A pitcher’s extension refers to the distance a pitcher releases the ball relative to the pitching rubber and it is a metric that the Cubs absolutely love (link is to an Ivy Futures Interview episode featuring Mason McRae who discusses this topic). Nearly all their top pitching selections in recent memory threw with well above-average extension. The effects of a longer extension leading to a higher “perceived velocity” is still debated, but all accounts are that it at worst is neutral to a pitcher’s success. Additionally, extension along with vertical release height are both related to a pitcher’s vertical approach angle (VAA), which is an in vogue pitching topic. You can read more about VAA here.
If you have seen the Chicago Cubs pitching staff, then you likely have seen the reliance on 2-seam fastballs and sinkers. These pitches, which have very similar movement patterns are often lumped together. While that’s not quite accurate, even Fangraphs categorizes 2-seamers and sinkers as “SI” (sinkers). And frankly, sinkers are not popular pitches in drafting and development circles for most organizations. High velocity fastballs up in the zone with “ride” coupled with power curveballs and sliders are the pitches teams gravitate towards. The Chicago Cubs have embraced those philosophies, but they are zagging while other teams are zigging in continuing to incorporate 2-seam fastballs in pitch design. Riley Thompson, Michael McAvene, Brailyn Marquez, and Adbert Alzolay all have worked to develop a 2-seam. Ryan Jensen, the Cubs top selection in 2019, heavily features a 2-seam fastball that a Cubs exec described as “dirty”. Unlike other organizations junking the 2-seamer/sinker, the Cubs embrace it as a legitimate offering and while they don’t overwhelmingly target pitchers who throw the pitch as a primary weapon, the organization doesn’t view it as a negative (like several other teams).
All organizations include age to some extent into how they evaluate players, especially in extremes. A player who is 19 years old in high school may offer less growth than a 17 year old. Certain organizations factor age very little into their draft models (Arizona) and others are notorious for heavily factoring it in (Cleveland). The Cubs are largely in the middle, especially when it comes to pitchers. In the past few years they’ve skewed to take pitchers on the younger end of their respective draft class from college and haven’t been tied to players like Bryce Jarvis and Landon Knack who were on the age outliers in last years draft. Ultimately, I wouldn’t heavily weigh age when it comes to identifying players the Cubs may target.
Prior Injury Issues and Reliever Risk
Until 2019, the Cubs actively avoided drafting pitchers with prior Tommy John Surgery (TJS). However, in back-to-back-to-back picks, the 2019 draft featured college arms (several as relievers as well) with prior TJS (McAvene, Clarke, Burgmann). There’s no denying it, 2019 was a risky draft. The Cubs bet on high upside even with high risk. Pitchers with prior TJS can’t be ruled out when evaluating potential Cubs picks. 2020’s shorten draft saw the Cubs double down on taking likely relievers in Burl Carraway and Luke Little, though Little is working to develop four pitches.
Sam Bachman, RHP, Miami (OH)
Ivy Futures Report: Bachman is a sturdy righthander with an unusual delivery. He’s held up to a starters workload previously, but has dealt with injury issues this season. His profile may fit better in relief with a mid-to-upper 90s (top 102) fastball and plus slider. The changeup will fluctuate between below average and average. The deception from his arm action makes the stuff play up, but I question if it’s a long-term starter’s profile. Bachman has some fans within the Cubs organization, though he may not be on the board by the time they select at #21.
Michael McGreevy, RHP, UCSB
Ivy Futures Report: Michael McGreevy is getting a ton of buzz recently in large part due to his improving stuff. McGreevy’s velocity keeps ticking up with a now 92-95 mph sinker and above-average slider and curveball. His fourth pitch is a changeup that may only slot in as an average but the whole package is enticing. McGreevy is a projectable guy at 6’4”, 215; he carries a high floor and a projected ceiling that appears to continue to rise as we get further into the draft season.
Will Bednar, RHP, Mississippi State
Ivy Futures Report: Bednar brings a low-to-mid 90s fastball (tops at 95) along with an above-average slider and a solid curve and changeup. The fastball has late arm-side life, which is a benefit in overall pitch movement, but also causes him to miss to his arm side (inside to righties). His slider is his best secondary with good sharp break. The curveball and changeup are a tad behind, but this is a four-pitch pitcher with a starters build from the SEC. Even more, Bednar boasts good extension, which is a metric that some teams (like the Cubs) focus on in their draft models
Dominic Hamel, RHP, Dallas Baptist University
Ivy Futures Report: DBU is well-regarded for their pitch design infrastructure. Cubs scouting director Dan Kantrovitz made multiple comments that Cubs 2020 2nd round pick out of DBU, Burl Carraway, had some of the most impressive metrics the organization has seen. Hamel offers a similar package, albeit with three pitches and the ability to start at the next level. There’s still reliever risk here, but Hamel’s 91-96 riding fastball and either his slider or curve could provide an impact arm in a multi-inning role if necessary. Hamel (like Carraway) has high spin rates and plus extension.
Josh Hartle, LHP, Reagan (HS)
Ivy Futures Report: Hartle is a projection dream standing 6 foot 5 with three pitch mix (fastball/changeup/slider). The changeup is ahead of the slider, but both are solid offerings. He has smooth, repeatable mechanics for a high school pitcher. His frame looks like it can add good muscle in the future. Midrotation upside. The velocity is more 88-91 right now, but he boasts metrics that some teams put strong emphasis on like extension.
Thatcher Hurd, RHP, Mira Costa (HS)
Ivy Futures Report: Hurd is a recent convert to pitching from catcher and sports some eye popping spin metrics. He’s peaked at 2700+ rpm on the fastball and 3000+ rpm on his curve in rapsodo sessions. Hurd’s curve is already plus and according to one scout, his changeup should sit plus with further development. In-game his fastball sits low 90s and runs pretty straight, however the velocity should increase as he continues to build innings after converting to pitcher.
Team draft boards are very much still in flux, however a few of these metrics and demographics are ones the Cubs have gravitated towards since a large draft philosophy changed. It’s very possible the Cubs employ a new strategy to bringing in pitching, but at this juncture, all options should be on the table.