Chicago Cubs Pitching

Duncan Robinson Interview Part 2 – A Year of Adjustment and Adaptation

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By Todd Johnson

I think every year is a series of continual adjustments in the game of baseball. The first full season as a professional for Myrtle Beach pitcher Duncan Robinson echoes the sentiment. He began the year as a reliever at South Bend, then he transitioned to a starter. He made the Midwest League All-Star team and shortly thereafter was promoted to Myrtle Beach. His first two starts as a Pelican did not go as planned, but since the middle of July he has been one of the best pitchers in the Carolina League. His ability to adapt to new situations and maintaining his daily routines are the keys to his success.

I had the opportunity to talk to Duncan about all the adjustments he has made this year and how they have affected his routine and what he throws in games.

TJ: How much has your daily routine been apart of your success?

DR: Being able to go into the start of this season with a routine that I can do with my eyes closed, it makes every start seem like it’s just another start. Your body is able to recognize where you are in the week and it allows you to prepare for each start.

TJ: When you went from being a reliever at South Bend to being a starter, how much did your daily routine change?

DR: It changed. I started a few games in spring training. I had a similar routine as a reliever, a piggyback back starter, where I had the five day rotation of coming in early to a game. But once I moved to a starting role, I did feel a little more comfortable. Once I finished my start, I could lay out my plan for the next five days and the goals I wanted to achieve. I definitely felt more comfortable. But at the end of the day, you just have to execute no matter what my pitching role is.

TJ: What was the biggest change from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?

DR: Probably the weather….When you go up a level, you have a heightened sense of competition where everyone is better, and they are better. In the grand scheme of things, probably the hardest thing is getting back into the routine of when you get to the field of where you are living and trying to get settled in as quickly as possible. The Pelicans have helped me do that. The staff has been great and so have the guys on the team.

Coming into the season, Robinson mainly threw  his fastball, sinker, and what I think is a beautiful curve. This year, he has added a cutter thanks to South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence. And, he is also working on a changeup in his side sessions.

TJ: How much are you throwing the cutter? Just here or there or in side sessions?

DR: When I first started throwing it, I didn’t expect to throw it too much this season. I threw it in a game against Fort Wayne. I had a lot of success with it. So, I figured the best way to develop a pitch is to try it in a game. It’s become a quality pitch for me at this level to both lefties and righties. I’m trying to make it a pitch in my repertoire as much as anything else.

I just need to execute like I have been doing.

TJ: You had a really nice run the second half of July that showed that you made some changes. Was there something that you were doing in game that allowed you to succeed at a higher level?

DR: I think just being able to feel more comfortable being at a higher level…Once I got those first two starts out of the way, I felt like I had been here since the beginning of the year. It’s not one of those things where you feel like the new guy all the time. Guys on the team are very accepting to guys moving up, like guys like me. Once you get on the same page with the catcher, and my defense has been spectacular – They’ve turned some key double plays and they’ve been consistent throughout for me and that’s been a huge part of my success.

What I like most about Robinson’s season has been his ability to adjust. I also like that he throws inside a lot and can do so with any pitch. I think his ability to adjust is only going to help him next year at AA Tennessee. Even though he will only have half a season at South Bend and a half season at Myrtle Beach, his track record suggests he has the wherewithal to adapt to any situation. In the Darwinian sense, it is not those who are most likely to adapt that survive, but those who are most responsive to change. 

*Cards made from pics by Rikk Carlson in South Bend and Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

Prospect Update: Duane Underwood Is Back on the Radar

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By Todd Johnson
   
One of the most underreported stories of the summer has been the somewhat resurgence of Duane Underwood. The 2012 draft pick has been healthy all season. And over his last 10 starts, he has compiled a 3.45 ERA. His last start saw him go 7 IP with 7 Ks and no BBs, a rarity for him. What I find most encouraging about the rebirth of Underwood is that he has done it pretty much unnoticed.

Here are six reasons why you could jump back on the “Duane Underwood Top Prospect” train.

1. He just turned 23. It seems like he’s been around forever. Nevertheless, when you are drafted into an organization devoid of pitching, as the Cubs were in 2012, your name moves to the top of the list. Add in his performances at Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015 and bloggers, writers, and other evaluators were drooling over his potential. As a result, in a system bereft of pitching, writers drifted towards the blinking radar gun in 2014 that said, “Easy 95.”

2. His ability to throw hard has never gone away. In fact, I think the velocity has improved since he was in class A. I think he now throws 95 to 97 regularly and, on an odd occasion, he touches 98-100.

3. Injury Free – He hasn’t missed a start all year. He’s taken the ball every fifth day and pitches between 90 and 100 pitches most of the time. For the year, he has thrown 108 innings and 1776 pitches, 1088 of them for strikes.

4. Pure Stuff – I don’t think there’s anybody in the system that throws three better pitches than Duane Underwood. There are pitchers who have better command, which has been the issue the past two seasons. What I find odd is that he’s never really been a strikeout pitcher with the kind of pitches that he has. One would think that he could just wipe guys out left and right. I don’t know why that is not happening. In 2015 at Myrtle Beach, his last full year, he averaged 5.69 K/9. This year, he is up to 6.79.

5. Command – This has always been his kryptonite or Achilles heel.  In 58.2 IP at AA in 2016, his BB/9 rate was 4.76. This year it is 3.42 which is almost respectable. He needs to get that in the 2s if he is going to go beyond Iowa. In spite of his command, I feel pretty good about his chances to make it to Iowa in 2018. And I feel pretty good about his chances at being a starter at AAA next year.

6. Time to Develop – Sometimes it takes five to seven years to develop a high school pitcher, which was where Underwood was when the Cubs drafted him. Because of his young age, I’m not ready for him to be a reliever, and I’m not ready for the Cubs to give up on him as a starter when he’s only 23. If he was 25, I could see him transition to being a reliever. But here’s the thing: He’s still a young kid and there’s plenty of time to be a reliever later. I still think he’s got a couple years of starter development still in him and that’s fine. If he makes to it Chicago in two years with a 95-97 mph FB that he can command to go along with a plus curve and a change, that’s more than you could ask for in a starter.

Right now, he is improving every month and he’s healthy. That’s a huge improvement from the past two seasons. With just a little over three weeks left in the minor-league season, Underwood will probably make about five more starts. I don’t think there’s anything to look for or expect out of him in those starts other than to just stay healthy.

I think, as a whole, a lot of people of been impatient with him, including myself. But I also recognize that he is an extremely talented and athletic pitcher. The expectation to rush him to the majors has been there for three years. And that expectation hasn’t worked out too well. Maybe it’s time for different expectations. I think those early expectations placed on Underwood were more projections of people wanting him to be something much sooner than later.

I think if he can finish the season healthy, that will go along way towards his own confidence, and, maybe more importantly, the confidence of the Cubs in him.

Cubs 2017 Draft Update: 19 Pitchers Taking Over the Lower Part of the System

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By Todd Johnson

It is easy to get a sneak peek at pitchers that have recently been drafted. However, their roles are not really going to be laid out for another year or two. Adjustments will be made at instructs this fall and again in spring training. The pitchers they are now will not resemble the pitchers they are next year or the year after

The thing I like to remember is that they have already pitched a full season of baseball. Some, like Alex Lange, have already thrown over 120 innings. Then again, there are relievers who fit right in when it comes to workloads this season. Of the 19 pitchers signed via the 2017 draft, only four have been given an opportunity to start in some capacity. In addition, two of the arms selected and signed have not thrown a pitch in game action.

Here is an update on how the young pitchers are doing.

Impressive

Alex Lange – The first round pick dominated in his two inning debut. While it was at Eugene, I felt that he should not be there much longer in that it really wasn’t a challenge for him. Hopefully, he can go up to South Bend and make it a start of two innings  and the Cubs can reevaluate from there. I tend to think he’ll begin next year at Myrtle Beach with an outside shot of Tennessee. However, Tennessee might be too aggressive.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – I love, love, love, love, love his changeup. Going forward, I tend to see him as a reliever. But don’t be surprised to see him get a shot at starting next year at South Bend.

Rollie Lacy – He is pitching only in relief in Mesa and he hasn’t allowed a lot of baserunners with a WHIP of 0.66. As a 22-year-old, he should dominate rookie ball and he is. I think there is a pretty good chance he’s in northern Indiana to begin the year.

Ben Hecht – He has been a most impressive reliever as he has swing and miss stuff. At Eugene, he has pitched 6.1 innings and struck out an amazing 15 batters. With that kind of firepower, I think long term that he is a reliever with closer or setup potential.

Jake Steffens – To date he’s pitched up 10.2 innings and is look good doing so. He had one bad outing in his eight appearances and opponents are only hitting .108 against him. It’s pretty good for a 29th round pick.

Brendan King – He is just getting going and he is making short starts. Right now, his ERA is 1.59 and he’s struck out 13 and 11.1 innings while only giving up two earned runs. Depending on how he does this fall and next spring, I think he has an outside shot at making it to Indiana for the summer.

Pretty Good

Erich Uelmen – He has only made three appearances. His first outing was a bit rough, but his second  saw him strikeout five in two innings. He is currently at Eugene and I expect him to be in South Bend starting in 2018.

Mitch Stophel – Currently, he is in rookie ball in Mesa. He has pitched nine innings in a relief it is struck out 13. He walked five, but for a 25 round pick, I’m not gonna complain. He could be in South Bend next year.

Cory Abbott – He debuted Monday night. He flashed a four pitch mix and struck out three in two innings but did give up a homer, his only hit. His fastball sat in the low 90s topping out at 93.

Depends on the Day

Kegan Thompson – After missing all of 2016, I was surprised the Cubs let him pitch after he threw 98 innings for Auburn this spring. He’s being used in relief and he has only made two appearances so far. I see him starting next summer in the rotation for South Bend.

Brian Glowicki – The closer from the University of Minnesota has had some ups and downs in that role for the Emeralds. He has shown the ability to miss bats and I think he will get better as the season goes on.

Casey Ryan – Take away one outing where he gave up four runs in 1/3 of an inning, and he’s been really good. He is a reliever in a starter’s body.

Jeffrey Passantino – I am not sure what his role is going to be. In Mesa, he hass been relieving. I don’t know if they’re going to try and turn him into a starter as a pro or leave him in the bullpen with his bulldog mentality. I guess we’ll find out next year.

It’s Early

Brendon Little – He has been lit up in his two outings. After only pitching four innings in college plus the cape cod league in 2016, he threw 80+ innings this year. I thought we might see him out of the pen to begin with, but he is taking the bump to begin the game twice. I would not be too alarmed that his performance so far. You still have to remember he’s only 20 years old and has been basically shut down for two months.

Sean Barry – He’s only made three appearances so far in Mesa. All were in relief. I don’t have a good read on him yet.

Peyton Remy – He made his first appearance on Sunday night when he threw a scoreless one third of an inning.

Crickets…They have not pitched yet and might not.

Jeremy Estrada – He has not been rostered yet. I think Estrada will more than likely be in Mesa at worst and Eugene at best.

Brady Miller – No roster has been assigned for Miller yet, either.

Braxton Light – He has been assigned to Arizona but has yet to see any action.

19 arms is a lot about pitching to accommodate in an organization at one time. We will know more next year at this time than we do now about these arms. I think this summer’s performances have kind of given us a sneak peek and there’s a lot to be encouraged by past month, and even the last week. And I think once the starters are stretched out next year, it will be even more impressive. With a lot of the young arms at Eugene and South Bend, this collection of arms will create quite the competition for spots next spring. So far, I find their performances encouraging for the organization.

 

Alex Lange Makes His Debut and Makes Quick Work of Spokane

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By Todd Johnson

When the Cubs drafted Alex Lange, I thought the pick was an outstanding one. At the time, I thought it was a steal and I still do. Lange is 21-years-old and he has a lot of experience pitching on a big stage. Whether he starts or relieves when he gets to Chicago does not matter to me. To go along with his uber-competitive nature, he has a major league curveball already.

When I watched him pitch in the College World Series, I came away very impressed with his ability to locate his fastball and pitch is way out of trouble. I did not expect the Cubs to let him pitch this year. For LSU, he threw 120+ innings. I thought he would just hang out and get acclimated to the pro lifestyle and show up at fall instructs and throw some BP there – sort of like Thomas Hatch did in 2016. That didn’t happen.

Strikeout #1 Pattern – MiLB Gameday

Last night in Spokane, Lange made his professional debut with Eugene Emeralds. The Cubs predetermined that Lange will only pitch 10 innings the rest of this year. I thought that Lange might go 2 innings, tops, to stay within that mandate. But what a two innings!

Lange faced six batters. He struck out three, got two grounders, and forced a popup. He only used 22 pitches in his two inning outing. Clearly, Lange was the dominant primordial beast on the mound. You can see from the pitch chart, he moved the ball around both up and down and inside and out.

His fastball came in between 89 and 93. His curve, according to Eugene radio announcer Pat Zajak, was “as good as advertized” in getting two of his strikeouts.

In the first, Lange was a bit wild but calmed down in the second. He was efficient as 15 of 22 pitches were for strikes and he did not walk a batter.

I got the sense that Lange is beyond short season ball. With his background and big game experience, Eugene might just be a safe place for him to get his 10 innings in. I, for one, would like to see how he does against more advanced hitters. The average age of the six batters he faced last night was 19.67. That is not really going to challenge someone who has pitched 3 years of SEC baseball.

Who knows, maybe Lange’s next start will be in South Bend. Something tells me, he likely would not be long there either.

The Friday Six Pack – Jose Albertos Twirls a One-Hitter

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By Todd Johnson

Jose Albertos made his fourth start for Eugene last night. He allowed one hit in five innings and threw just 63 pitches. He struck out five, walked one, and did not allow a run. Only one ball was hit hard and that was a line drive to center field.

Here are six things you need to know about the latest start from the Cubs top pitching prospect.

1. Of his 63 pitches, 46 were for strikes. That’s an amazing percentage! This is the type of command that has been hinted at the past year and a half.

2. He is not going to strike out everybody, but he does work efficiently, which might be better in the long run. He was looking good in his last turn before a series of errors evolved into three runs. On Thursday night, most at-bats were only three or four pitches and the defense was outstanding behind him.

3. He is able to pitch in on the hands and get a lot of ground ball outs. In total, he had six ground ball outs.

4. He was able to maintain his velocity through the fifth inning. In the past, he tends to start off in the low 90s and velocity increases along with the innings. Last night was no exception. By the second inning he was sitting 95, 96, and he even touched 97.

5. The fact that he threw 63 pitches should not be alarming. The Cubs are still handling him with kid gloves after he missed two starts over two weeks in July. He did throw 80 pitches earlier in the year and is working his way back to that number.

6. He threw all three of his pitches for strikes. He has been throwing his changeup more the last two starts than he did in the first two. Eugene broadcaster Pat Zajac commented often about the poor swings the pitch kept getting all night.

As a result of his excellent outing, his ERA dropped from 4.63 to 3.24. This was his first start on the road and that is a very encouraging to see him do so well in different environs. His next start should be on the 9th in Boise.

 

Now That Jeimer Is Gone, Which Cubs Prospects Have “Next” in Chicago?

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By Todd Johnson

Eloy is gone.

Dylan Cease is gone.

Ian Happ is gone.

Albert Almora is gone.

Jeimer Candelario…gone.

Four months ago, they were the top five guys in the Cubs’ system. Two made it to Chicago while the other three were used in trades to obtain players that will hopefully bring another World Series trophy this year and/or next.

In looking at who might be the next group of players to make it to Chicago, one only need to look at AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee to see the next possible candidates who could arrive over the next year to help out.

I feel confident in saying that we can rule out any position players. No one in Chicago is going anywhere until at least after 2018. And that is not a even certainty.

So that leaves pitching.

The Cubs will have several openings in the bullpen and starting staff next year. I think the Cubs will use all avenues of talent acquisition to fill those spots. Still, here are five to seven prospects to watch the rest of August, fall instructs, and spring training as they could be in the discussion for a roster spot in 2018, or maybe even a bullpen spot this year.

Dillon Maples – It took a while, but he’s got it. In fact, he has always had “it.” Now he has confidence and a cutter to go with his upper 90s fastball and slider/curve “thingy” (That’s what Maples calls it). He has dominated two levels this year and is now working on a third. Based on his talent and ascension, he will get a precious 40 man spot this winter to escape being selected in the Rule V draft.

Jen-Ho Tseng – I loved him in 2014 as an 18-year-old at Kane County. The changeup fell off the table then. He will turn 23 this fall and should have a shot to compete for a starting spot at the back of the rotation in 2018. More than likely, he will probably be used as starting pitching depth for next season and be stored at Iowa. Still, I cannot wait to see him in camp next spring.

Craig Brooks – He is in Tennessee right now. In July, the right handed reliever did not allow a run and struck out 25 in 13.1 IP. It took him several months to figure it out at Myrtle Beach. It took him just 4 weeks at AA. I cannot wait to see what his mid to upper 90s heat will do at Iowa and in spring training.

Adbert Alzolay – Long term, I like his stuff better out of the pen. But for now, he’s starting and doing it very well throwing at 96 in the 6th and 7th innings. The secondaries still need some work. Hopefully, he can get those improved at AA before the spring. He is stretched out now in his second year of starting after being a reliever/piggyback starter in Eugene in 2015. He’s pretty healthy despite his small frame.

Matt Carasiti – He came over this summer in the Zac Rosscup trade from the Rockies. I have watched him pitched a couple of times. He throws in the middle 90s but doesn’t have that “out” pitch, but he does know how to pitch. You don’t get to be the closer in the All-Star game in a hitter’s league for nothing.

Long Shots – Duane Underwood and Trevor Clifton

They have both been around for a while. Underwood in his second season at AA and Clifton, his first. For Underwood, he still throws in the upper 90s that either he commands or he doesn’t command and that can change from inning to inning. He just turned 23 so don’t expect the Cubs to give up on him anytime soon.

As for Trevor, he was outstanding through the All-Star Break at AA. Since, he’s struggled in his six second half starts. I still believe in his talents. At times, he is humming right along and runs into the big inning or a big fly. His walk rate is up a bit after being way down last year. He’s a mentally tough kid. At just 22, he’s worked hard to get here. He will continue to do so. This might be just a bump in the road for him to go around.

 

Player Update: Bailey Clark Turned in a Mature Performance Sunday

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By Todd Johnson

I don’t think there’s any secret of my admiration for Cubs prospect Bailey Clark. The 2016 5th round pick out of the Duke has been a favorite of mine since he pitched at Eugene last summer. I already wrote about him once this year, and it’s not often that I write about a prospect more than once in the season, let alone a month. But yesterday, his start against Hillsboro made me want to examine the pitching job that he did.

I called his last start frustratingly magical. I don’t have any illuminative adjectives to describe yesterday’s start other than that he pitched extremely well. I know this is going to sound strange, but he scattered four walks across 5 innings while striking out three and allowing just three hits and an unearned run.

I thought it was his most efficient outing when it comes to pitchability. Heading into the fifth inning he had only thrown 50 pitches. He did finish the day with 72 and I think he could’ve gone one more inning if needed. But with a 9 to 1 lead, why push it.

From the beginning, Clark looked to be in command. He did give up a single in the first and had a pickoff attempt go down the first base line, but other than that he was able to get two pop-ups and a fly out against one of the top offenses in the Northwest League in Hillsboro.

The second, third, and fourth innings were pretty inconsequential. He was locating his fastball (low 90s), he was getting his curve across, and he wasn’t wasting any time nibbling on the corners. Aside from a walk in the third and a walk in the fourth, he looked to be around the plate all day long.

In the fifth, he did run into some trouble after giving up a walk, a single, and another walk to load the bases. He did give up an unearned run on a throwing error that would’ve ended the inning. However, he got the next batter to line out and the damage was kept at a minimum.

This is about the fourth different Bailey Clark I’ve seen this year. There was dominant Bailey Clark who struck out nine against Boise and eight against Everett. There was also the wild Bailey to go along with the nibbler Bailey. However, I really liked the Bailey I saw on Sunday a lot.

He didn’t get rattled. He stayed in control. He didn’t begin nibbling or throwing 59 foot curves in the dirt. He looked like a pitcher navigating his way through a lineup – a very good one at that. He looked poised and mature.

I think I can handle this incarnation of Bailey Clark, too.