Prospect Update: Zach Hedges Might Have “Next”

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While Eddie Butler drew attention for his first major-league start for the Cubs on Friday night, Dylan Cease had all the attention in the minor leagues. However, Cease did not last very long due to his wildness and lack of efficiency. As a result, while the big league game was on the TV, my eyes on the computer were fixated on Zach Hedges of the Tennessee Smokies.

I first saw Hedges pitch back in 2015 in Burlington, Iowa. It was a hot and muggy night and Hedges dominated for four innings before the humidity of the Midwest wore him out. Since then, Hedges has changed quite a bit as a pitcher and a prospect.

Back then, he was more arms and legs than anything. He had a plus slider, threw about 89 to 91 with his sinking fastball, and pitched down in the zone, mainly to contact.

He is no longer that pitcher. He has added 3 to 5 miles to his fastball by putting on 10 to 15 pounds. As a result, he can pitch deeper into games and throw with a little more gusto. He often goes into the seventh every night. He has added a four-seam fastball to vertically offset his slider and two seam sinking fastball. He may not be a strikeout machine, but it is common for him to strike out between 5 to 7 most nights.

Here are three things I came away impressed with last night.
1. He gets a lot of ugly swings.
Often times, fans get carried away with watching the radar gun to see the effectiveness of the pitcher. If Hedges is on, you will see hitters flailing at a ball down in the zone, being fooled by a pitch up in the zone, and the right side of the infield working all night long. For the most part, that’s what Hedges did last night. While he did give up two runs, he had six Ks and nine ground ball outs.

2. He is throwing inside and upstairs
I like the fact that he is now using all of the zone when he pitches. In 2015, he used only the down and away quadrant. Now he is using all four parts. He may get burnt going upstairs once in awhile, like he did last night, but I think that makes him a better pitcher.

3. Mental relaxation
One thing I am most impressed with is how mentally strong he is. The Cubs have emphasized a mental skills program past few years in the Theo era. You can see it in pitchers in how they breathe in between pitches. From Carl Edwards in the major leagues down to Hedges’ teammate Trevor Clifton, Hedges breathing patterns are quite noticeable along with the effect they have on calming him down in between pitches. I am sure there are other routines that are taught that are just as effective but not noticeable on camera.

After seven starts this year, Hedges has a 2.59 ERA in 41.2 IP. He has struck out 29 while only walking seven for the entire season. The Cubs have to be excited about that last stat. His 1.30 walks per nine innings is the lowest of his Cubs career. Last year, he got 3.13 ground balls to every fly ball. This year, he is at 1.73 and that is improving after every start.

I don’t know how much longer he is going to be in Tennessee. He has put together almost a whole solid year of starts at AA. He now stands at 89 innings and likely will get another 20 to 30 before he gets bumped to Iowa. I don’t know if he’ll get a crack in Chicago this year, but he is not that far away. When he gets to Iowa, his ability to throw down in the zone in a hitter’s league will be essential for the final phase of his life as a prospect.

I really like watching Zach pitch. I think his style of pitching is unlike anything they Cubs have in the majors. As a ground ball pitcher from the right side, he could succeed in any wind condition at Wrigley. The velocity is there, the movement is there, and the efficiency is there. I think it’s a just a matter of time before he gets his chance. Next spring training will be telling as the Cubs could have between 2 and 3 rotation spots available.

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