Duane Underwood: Making the Jump – Small Changes Could Mean Big Results

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Going from high A to AA is a big jump in a player’s development. For Duane Underwood, 2016 will be a test on many levels. He will face more disciplined hitters. He will have to use his arsenal in a variety of ways. He will not be able to rely on a fastball with late movement to get groundball outs. He’s going to have to change how he pitches or attacks hitters. The change will be slight, but a minor adjustment at AA could make for a big jump in his development.

Underwood has electric stuff, and when the playoffs arrived each of the past two years, he turned it up a notch against some top competition. Hopefully, in 2016, he can turn it up a new level for a whole season. Having watched Underwood develop the past two years, in person at Kane County, and on MiLB.TV at Myrtle Beach, I really like how he progressed the past two years. First, by staying in shape, and second, by working on three pitches. As a result, Underwood has advanced to the top of the Cubs’ pitching prospect list by primarily pitching to contact. He gets a lot of groundball outs and doesn’t strike out a lot (3-4 per game). However, his game and arsenal are not complete.

To watch him pitch is like watching someone throw catch. The ball flows easy from his hand and explodes near the plate with late movement. Underwood’s “easy” 95 mile an hour fastball is his calling card. Everybody knows that. They also know he possibly has a plus curveball and a developing change up. Everybody also knows that Underwood has fallen in love with his fastball – maybe too much. Underwood, on the other hand, knows he doesn’t need to strike everybody out and tends to pitch to contact. He currently projects as a number two or three starter.

I think as 2015 went on, hitters started to figure out what Underwood’s game plan was. Still hitters struggled to hit what they knew was coming. Before a mid-season elbow injury, his opponents’ batting average against was .193.

Baseball America said this of Underwood’s skills:

Underwood has the firmest fastball, sitting in the 93-96 mph range, particularly early in games, before settling into the low 90s later. Its late life induces more early-count weak contact than empty cuts. Underwood still is learning to harness his ability to cut and sink the ball, and to set up hitters to better use his curveball and changeup. His curve has more swing-and-miss potential for some scouts, but most agree his changeup is more consistent and ahead of his breaking ball currently. Both have flashed plus but grade no better than average consistently, leading to a modest strikeout rate.

My opinion is he needs to throw the change up more and the fastball less. I think his pitch percentage breakdowns will determine how he gets to the majors. If he’s throwing 75% fastballs, it’s going be a long year at AA. Hitters will sit and wait on it.

If Underwood throws 50% fastballs 25% curveballs and 25% changeups, he could be in Chicago quicker than you think. And I think that fastball percentage could even go as high as 60% and he would still be OK. But if AA hitters are sitting on a 93-95 mile an hour fastball, they are going to hit that fastball the second or third time through the order unless he can mix his pitches more.

underwood 65One thing that has been ingrained in Cubs pitchers at A ball and below is fastball command. Underwood’s manager and pitching coach the past two years, Mark Johnson and David Rosario, are known for their pitchers coming out throwing nothing but fastballs the first two innings, maybe up to 35-40 pitches, to develop that fastball command. While Johnson will be moving up to AA with Underwood in 2016, for the first time in three years Underwood will be without Rosario. Instead, Underwood will be under the tutelage of Terry Clark, the former pitching coordinator of the Seattle Mariners. That change might be interesting as to what Clark sees in Underwood and what slight changes that need to made.

This year Underwood needs to stay healthy, he needs to mix his pitches, and he needs to be able to throw any pitch at any time in any count. Sometimes, I think Underwood steps it up when he wants to. In the Mills Cup Championship Series in 2016, Underwood went six innings while striking out seven – a season high. He struck 6 once and 5 once, yet had an ERA of 2.58 on the season.

He has so much talent that looks very fluid. 2016 should be interesting to see how performs, and, more importantly, adjusts to AA hitters and his own talents and what it takes to make the jump to the next level.

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