Can a slow and steady approach help the Cubs win the race to acquire pitching prospects?

Can a slow and steady approach help the Cubs win the race to acquire pitching prospects?
Paul Blackburn (photo from

Almost 20 years ago, I remember having a beer with a friend and talking about the MLB draft.  Specifically, we were there to celebrate his little brother getting drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers.  His brother was there as well (but he wasn't drinking, of course) and the talk turned to the player the Cubs had drafted earlier that week -- Kerry Wood.  But the conversation wasn't about Wood's fastball or wicked breaking ball.  It was about how Wood's high school baseball coach pitched him in both ends of a double-header -- on  a rainy day -- the day after the draft.

"What an idiot, " said my friend's little brother, referring to Wood's coach.  "It wouldn't surprise me if that catches up to him later in his career."

That turned out to be very prescient as Wood did have all kinds of arm problems and while we don't know if it had anything specifically to do with that day, it illustrated what is becoming an increasing concern with both high school and college pitchers -- the combination of high velocity and high workload early in a young pitcher's development.

Tom Verducci recently wrote about the problem for SI, saying that the increasing workload with added showcases, tournaments, and workouts have made the problem even worse.  Specifically, the risk factor seems greater for pitchers who threw 95 or more as high schoolers.  The recent results give good reason for pause when taking a high school pitcher early,

"Over the next five drafts (2003-08), teams selected 26 high school pitchers among the first 30 picks. Eighteen of those 26 high picks have posted a career WAR below 3.0, including six who never have played a day in the big leagues. Only eight of those 28 first-round high schoolers ever won as few as three games for the team that drafted them."

I spoke to one scout who is frustrated with the development, saying he would focus on the kid's future and getting kids to college -- but even that can be a problem as college pitchers have been known to run up pitch counts for the sake of winning, as evidenced by Carlos Rodon's 134 pitch count last week.  We also saw Mark Appel occasionally run up some high pitch counts when he was at Stanford.

I had another friend in high school who was drafted by the Houston Astros.  At the time, minor league prospects in that organization were not allowed to throw sliders, which just so happened to be my friend's best pitch.  He told me he was told to focus on throwing his fastballs for strikes and developing his change-up before they would let him bring back the slider.

A veteran scout told me he has similar thoughts on developing young pitchers,

Two big factors - 1. Rest and recovery needs to increase. 2. Throw the fastball first, then the change, then off-speed.  Kids want to snap off off speed, after off speed and the focus should be on fastball command.

It remind me a bit of when I talked to Cubs Minor League pitching coordinator Derek Johnson last June and I asked him what young aspiring pitchers should do,

Just throw (laughs)....  I know that sounds strange but you want him to develop his ability to throw first.  You don't want him to lose athleticism.  We tend to worry about skills too early.  We can always teach them that later.

Such conversation brings us to the upcoming MLB Draft, where the Cubs are all but certain to take a pitcher.  You have the 3 college pitchers: Carlos Rodon, Jeff Hoffman, and Tyler Beede.

Interestingly none threw 95 mph as high schoolers.  They all threw in the high 80s with only Beede getting into the low 90s with any consistency.  So they certainly fit the profile as far as lower velocity as high schoolers is concerned.   All three developed that mid 90s velocity as they got older.  Hoffman, in fact, just hit 96 97 in his last outing en route to 16 strikeouts -- a game, by the way, in which both Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer attended.   Rodon hit similar velocities in his last start.

There's also the high schoolers.  There's no doubt Tyler Kolek is in that high velocity range and he's had the added workload of showcases and tournaments.  Is he at risk?  What of Brady Aiken, who Law has seen hit 97, though I've heard that he's almost always in that 91-93 mph range.

On the other hand, Aiken has thrown a lot more breaking stuff while Kolek has been getting away with a very high percentage of fastballs.  Whoever takes Kolek will likely have to develop those secondary pitches when he becomes a professional.  So which is the greater risk?

That is something the Cubs may have to decide as they weigh the data and balance that with their own philosophies.

One thing we do know about the Cubs is that they've decided to attack the pitching void with volume and we can see how it may make sense on a couple of levels.  We know the Cardinals succeed with lots of lower velocity pitchers in the lower rounds who develop and throw harder as they mature.  We also saw them take a pitcher who hadn't yet developed his bfreaking pitch in Michael Wacha, and were able to develop him as well.   Perhaps the Cubs can find that with lower round pitchers who aren't yet getting the hype because they haven't lit up radar guns -- or who haven't been snapping off great sliders since they were 12.

For me that brings Paul Blackburn to mind.  Blackburn was mostly a high 80s pitcher in high school who demonstrated the ability to spin, but who had not yet developed his breaking pitches.  For Blackburn the appeal was more about athleticism and a natural ability to repeat his delivery.  His velocity jumped into the 91-94 range (touching 95) just last season.  Rob Zastryzny also threw in the 80s in high school and didn't hit 95 until late in his college career, though he has yet to hit that since.

Another place to look is the international free agent market.  In that article cited above, of the 20 pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery, only one was from Latin America.  Perhaps that can become a market inefficiency in terms of finding healthy pitchers -- as long as you know how to develop them.  it's not unusual to find kids who throw in the low to mid 80s only to see them develop 90+ velocity later. Daury Torrez, who took a perfect game into the 6th yesterday, is one such example.  Verducci's article quotes one international scouting director stating something to that effect,

"Latin American pitchers are allowed to grow into their velocity. It's a common story to sign a guy throwing 84, 85 [mph] who eventually winds up throwing in the 90s. Michael Pineda is one. You're looking for someone with a good, athletic body who can throw the ball around the plate and has a feel for spinning the ball. The velocity comes in time, with training and better nutrition and physical growth. Here? The statistics don't lie. We need to look elsewhere around the world to learn a better way. It's time."


Perhaps it' s no coincidence the Cubs have turned to lower mileage Latin American arms in the past two IFA signing periods:  Juan Paniagua, Jefferson Mejia, and Erling Moreno were three of their biggest signings the past two years.   Torrez is an example of the kind of a lower profile signing you can find and develop at your own pace deep in your system.

Whatever the case, one thing seems pretty clear when it comes to pitchers.  While young pitchers are trying to throw mid 90s fastballs or throw wipeout sliders in front of scouts -- many of whom pitch 10 months a year, and some  for high school coaches trying to win now -- it seems possible that, in the long term,  maybe less is more when it comes to early development.  Or perhaps more to the point, maybe scouts are looking at the wrong attributes in young pitchers.

So while we all go gaga over the next prep guy who hits 97, maybe we should turn the focus on guys like Blackburn and Torres -- athletic guys who were able to repeat their delivery early and then developed velocity and skills as they matured physically.  And given the way radar gun readings and nasty breaking balls garner early attention in the draft, the Cubs may be able to stock up on such pitchers beyond the first round.


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  • Another reason to look to position players first with this draft.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    There really aren't any worth taking at #4.

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    The scary thing is when you can talk about what you did 20 years ago and realize you were old enough to drink 20 years ago.

    Fascinating point about the Latin American pitchers but it makes all the sense in the world, since most of them are pitching for the academies where they're more interested in development than winning.

    I don't know the answer to this, but I would be curious what kind of pitch counts kids on the Vandy team had when Derek Johnson was the pitching coach. Also whether Vandy in those years preferred pitchers who didn't trow as many slider in their youth.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I thought of that too. But I'm of German background on one side of my family, so we drink whenever we feel we're ready. We didn't look at it as a taboo drink when we were younger -- or something to get drunk on. Wasn't strange at all to get offered a beer when I was younger ;) So for me it's been more like 30 years since I've been having beers (at least in front of family) That's pretty scary.

    The Latin American pitchers develop those habits even before they get to the states. It's a cultural difference and it's an advantage for MLB teams who can develop them.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    That's definitely an interesting question. It is pretty clear that kids in the Cubs' system are definitely on pitch counts, which, to me, also seems to be dictated by the temperature/weather.

  • Terrific article and a fascinating look at a potential market inefficiency. You definitely have to have a long view of drafting to employ this sort of strategy, though. And you have to have a dynamite scouting staff to figure out what pitchers were doing in their younger years.

  • In reply to JB88:

    Thanks. I agree about that long view and needing a great scouting staff -- not to mention the right staff to develop them as well.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Nicely done, as always John.

  • In reply to mjvz:


  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Nice article again John! Overpitching is just one example of our poor youth athletic development in almost all American sports. We overemphasize the now without a long term perspective. I think Derek Johnson is a beacon of light for the Cubs organization.

  • In reply to Jason Diedrich:

    Thank Jason. And completely agree on Derek Johnson.

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    In reply to Jason Diedrich:

    I've been thinking about this and there's an excellent reason for it: the payoff for being a Top 50 or so pick is enormous and the chances of success so slim (most drafted players don't make it) that pushing hard to be one of the best HS/college pitchers in the country is a very sane thing to do, even if it mortgages your future. While it may suck for big league teams, this is an efficient outcome in the economic sense.

    Where it gets really interesting is that Latin American players, who face the same incentives, don't do so. This is actually also an efficient outcome and what economists refer to as a "first best solution." It would be a fascinating study to see if you could identify exact pieces in the Latin American development framework that lead to this outcome.

  • I wonder if the Cubs thought Concepcion could add velocity as well when they signed him?

  • In reply to JasonB:

    He was young but he did have some high stress innings in the Serie Nacional, which is Cuba's major league. I'm not sure I'd include him in this group. It's about winning at that level.

  • So that would point to Beede or Hoffman being the ideal pick, which are the two most likely to fall to the cubs.

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    In reply to nmu’catsbball:

    I think there's a decent chance the White Sox take one of them and the other falls to us. Not something to complain about, certainly.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Right, I didn't mean both would, but I think Rodon, Aiken, and Kolek are the most likely to go 1-2-3 at this point, with one team possibly jumping on either Hoffman or Beede. Which leaves us with a nice choice no matter how you slice it.

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    In reply to nmu’catsbball:

    I think 1-2 are Rodon and Kolek and that's pretty sure at this point. So the question becomes whether the White Sox go high school to get Aiken. I have a hard seeing that one but maybe. I can also see them going Alex Jackson there which gives us a lot of options.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Rodon & Kolek are anything but certain at 1-2. Aiken is right their with them and could still go #1 to Houston.

    I would say at this point, and it can easily change, Kolek - Aiken - Rodon are a bit ahead of the rest for picks #1-3 with Alex Jackson as a wild card for the top 3 with some combination of Holmes, Beede, Hoffman, Gordon, Zimmer, Turner making up the rest of the top 10 at this point...and with Micheal Gettys, rising now as he is starting to mash the ball like scouts had hoped he would, as a wild card.

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    I know a certain scout who loved Gettys from the moment we saw him.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    No doubt Kevin has loved the Gettys from the beginning.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Out of all the position players, Gettys would be the one I would take instead of a pitcher if the ones the Cubs wanted were taken 1-3. With his elite 80 speed, elite 80 arm (100mph from the outfield), and plus raw power, if he can develop his hit tool then he basically is the Mike Trout clone that everybody hopes he can be. That would be worth passing up a pitcher for.

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    In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    The Marlins are in love with Kolek. If he's there, they're gonna take him. That's been one of the most consistent stories of the draft period. So the real question is what does Houston do. The fear on Rodon all spring has been injury concerns but those appear to be out the window after last weekend.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I believe very little of team rumors concerning who they will pick, as those many time are smoke screens.

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    Articles like this are what seperates Cubs Den from the rest.

    Excellent read and I believe you're on to something John.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks Marcel!

  • Great job John, I love these kind of articles. It is kind of a look inside how our front office thinks, and what kind of research they are doing to gain an edge.

    The thing I like about their strategy on attacking pitching is the volume of arms they have. If we have 10-20 guys in our system that have MLB rotation potential; the odds are pretty good that 4-5 of them could be keepers. I think that kind of depth is essential to building the pitching staff and in trades.

  • So the cubs should look into a high school pitcher over a college pitcher. A college pitcher will have a lot more mileage on his arm where as the cubs can really limit how much a high schooler pitches from the ages 18-20. I'm really hoping Aiken is there for them to take

  • In reply to Joshnk24:

    I think that the idea is more that you look to HS pitchers who have good command and have yet to throw over 95 MPH or be overworked as dark horse candidates to emerge and try to find college pitchers who fit that same model as HS'ers, but have now emerged and shown more development of their secondary/off-speed pitches.

    The idea isn't so much the mileage; it is instead how that mileage was acquired. Throwing a ton of pitches in any one game or on short rest = bad. Throwing sliders and 95+ MPH fastballs in HS = bad.

  • In reply to Joshnk24:

    No, that's the opposite of what the article is saying. High school pitchers who throw in the mid-upper nineties and often use secondary pitches are the most at risk, which is the definition of Aiken (and Kolek to an extent). The "safer" guys are the ones who threw mostly fastballs in HS and didn't throw in the mid-upper nineties until their bodies filled out and gained the velocity later, which would be Hoffman or Beede.

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    John, do you know if the Cubs have any interest in Joel Hanrahan?

  • In reply to Ray:

    I do not. It makes sense that they'd look into him, but I don't get the feeling he's a main target. I could be wrong.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks. I've read that multiple teams have watched him throw. I don't know if the Cubs have.

  • I've always been a big proponent of drafting bats and attacking pitching with huge quantities from Latin America. I never had any data to back up my opinion though. Now I do.

    Being able to sign players at 16 in Latin America leaves more room for growth, to control development, and for sleeper candidates to emerge than drafting more polished and physically mature 18-21 year old kids in America. The financial stakes (especially in the first round) are higher in the draft and it also has a larger fan profile so going with the safer bats in the draft helps avoid public failures. An international signing that gets hurt or fails to develop has less effect.

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    In reply to mjvz:

    Excellent point. I'd love to know what the payoff (probably calculated as money saved vs. an equivalent FA starter) for a pitcher in the first round is vs. a bat in the first round. I'd guess your right and the bat has the higher payoff.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Nice point MJVZ.

  • I think CJ Edwards fits that mold as well.

  • John, when I was younger, pitchers like Fergie,Gibson, Palmer all threw complete games with pitch counts routinely 120 to 150. Not too many of them had TJS(except TJ of course). The only thing they had in common was they were big power pitchers. So I don't think pitch counts are the problem as much as throwing too many sliders or bad mechanics. Your thoughts?

  • In reply to Fitz:

    I think the difference is whether they threw that much as kids. My guess is they did not. The focus on high school baseball and the draft (and some of these big inning guys were pre-draft) is not nearly the same as today. Different environment. The idea is that these injuries have their roots early -- in the teen years or even sooner -- and there isn't much MLB teams can do about it by the time they're older.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    EXACTLY! It actually starts even younger. I have coached competitive youth travel teams. I see kids (with coaches & parents encouraging it) spinning breaking pitches as early as 10U. The other phenomenon is that they are now playing baseball 10-11 months out of the year as early as 8U. SERIOUSLY!

    One of the investigative reporting TV shows (IDK which one now) did a story on this and the alarming number of TJS in HS kids... They were celebrating the success rate and the kids/parents weren't upset that the procedure was necessary because many come back throwing even harder.... Shocking!

  • In reply to Fitz:

    I feel the same way. I grew up in the era of, you start a game, you're going to finish it.

    Leo Mazzone hates pitch counts.

  • I wonder if there are college programs that are better or worse for these sorts of things. I'd imagine so. Some teams probably focus only on what's best for them, and others probably respect the development process in order to get these kids drafted.

  • Really thought-provoking article. It could be a really interesting strategy and perhaps one that the Cubs are already implementing as you suggest.

    John--as the draft approaches, will you look at the various positions and rank players? I'm really interested to see if there are any decent catchers the Cubs might draft in an early-ish round seeing how barren that position seems to be (though I also usually subscribe to BPA). Is this draft considered deep or shallow or average?

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    thanks PV. I think we'll intensify our coverage of the draft in May and that is something we can look into doing. Maybe well get Dan to help us out with that.

  • The problem with taking high school pitchers in the Theo/Jed regime is "DATA" according to Jed Hoyer. He talked this morning about "DATA" on the radio. He said HS stats have to be taken with a grain of salt because they are not always facing the best competition. A college arm has anywhere from 300-415 of additional innings and faces much more advanced hitting profiles. It was interesting to hear him talk about pitching with certifiable numbers and just exactly "what" those numbers mean and against whom.

  • This is another of several great articles on "marketing inefficiencies" which makes for great reading and insight. I love it and learn more all the time. My question seems silly but: Are other teams reading this and stealing these great ideas or are they already equally clued in?

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    "Personally, numbers and money don’t really drive me. What does drive me is protecting and setting up the players behind me, the future generations, so that I’m not signing any of these crummy early deals for seven or eight years," -- Jeff Samardzija

    so no, he's not holding out for his own sake, it's all for the players that come after him. I wonder if there might be a little awkwardness between him and Rizzo and Castro in the locker room after he essentially just told them they let themselves get ripped off. And I wonder if guys like Kalish, Ian Stewart and (almost) Rizzo might have something to tell him about the value of financial security in an industry where any random injury or illness can wipe out that multi-million dollar career you were dreaming about.

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    In reply to SKMD:

    Very different situations with Rizzo and Castro. Samardzija has less than two years of cost control left and is 29 yo. Rizzo signed his deal at 23(?) with less than 1 year of service time accumulated. Castro, while he had more service time, will still finish this contract (if the Cubs exercise the option) in his age 30 season, the same age Jeff reaches FA.

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    In reply to Matt McNear:

    Same situation, different time frame. I think Samardzija is referring in general to all these contracts where young players including Trout are signing deals that buy out their early free agent years, he seems to think that's silly and is implying that everyone ought to reach free agency. Which may be a red flag for anyone thinking of trading for him, as it seems he will not sign an extension post trade unless he gets free agent money.

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    In reply to SKMD:

    if it were a different situation, he wouldn't have referred to those "crummy 7 or 8 year deals." That is directly referring to the type of deal Castro and Rizzo signed.

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    In reply to SKMD:

    That is a whole lot to infer from those comments, imo. Samardzija has spoken many times about being willing to sign the right extension, so I don't think you can say "he thinks everyone ought to reach free agency". And there is nothing "directly referring" to anybody's deal. Take what you want from his comments, but to me, you're reaching.

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    In reply to Matt McNear:

    only one way to interpret the quote, IMO. "The right extension" for him is the equivalent of a free agent deal, 2 years early. Here's the rest of it, referring to "young guys" that are "approaching arbitration":

    "When you’re hitting your prime and you’re hitting free agency — like it’s supposed to be done — then that’s the way it sets up for guys behind you. I definitely have a responsibility to the players that are younger than me and approaching arbitration or approaching free agency to keep the numbers where they should be."

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Interesting quotes. Do u gave a link?
    I agree that Marge implicated Castro and Rizzo; intentionally or not. But, considering what Marge signed for? The comments seem ignorant, to say the least, comparing his situation to these kids.

  • Good stuff in there, John. You raise a lot of really excellent points about the travel ball and showcase circuits doing damage to arms. I actually don't think its all the work necessarily, rather the intensity of that work that does most of the damage. There are plenty of very conservative pitch count regulations out there for travel and showcase. High School does it by innings per week rather than pitch count which is a little more dangerous.

    Travel ball and showcase circuit are where the money and the looks are at though. Take a guy like CJ Edwards vs. a guy like Lucas Giolito. Both now high profile arms. CJ's story is well documented with the bush leagues and how he basically couldn't afford to/ wasn't able to hit the showcase circuit and play on high profile travel teams. Thus he's a 48th rounder, signed for peanuts, and is still only making about 1400 a month. Then you have Giolito who's family probably spent a quarter million dollars or more on his development. He's one of those guys who've been on the map since he was 12. He's had all kinds of arm injuries, didn't even pitch his senior year, first rounder, already had his TJ as a pro, will probably have another one in his mid twenties, making 1400 a month. The difference? Giolito's already a multi-millionaire. If CJ goes down with two TJ's and never makes it, what's he gonna do? If Giolito never makes it, at least he's got that money.

    I've talked to more than a couple of guys about it and I'm sure you have too and a lot of them refer to young pitchers as, "...he's already had his Tommy John..." as if its almost a given now.

    I guess my point is that if you can pitch hard all year long as a youngster, get paid, get a brand new elbow, rehab, and repeat it's probably worth a brand new elbow in your early twenties.

  • Holy Cow we scored a run!!!

  • In reply to Peter Chicago:


  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, I'm curious what you think about sacrifice bunting in bad weather conditions? What if there is a lot of wind blowing in or hard rain? It seems a day like today would be a time when I'd want to sacrifice with the wind blowing in as strong as it is.

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    In reply to David23:

    Sacrifice with the tying run at the plate and nobody out?

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    I meant in a game situation where common wisdom used to be to sacrifice but now studies are persuading many to not sacrifice. For example, wind blowing in 15 mph 2-2 ball game in bottom of 9th with a runner on first and no out. Would you do it?

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    In reply to David23:

    In a tied or one run game, maybe, depending on who's at the plate.

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    I would probably do it. I was curious to know what people like John would do since he seems pretty set against the sacrifice. I wonder if weather conditions would persuade him?

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    And depending on who you have on the bench ready to pinch hit if the next batter is a weak hitter.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Man it's a sad day when we celebrate one run. Today was hard to watch

  • Considering what you said, "athletic guys who were able to repeat their delivery early and then developed velocity and skills as they matured physically" just may be the way Theo/Jed are going. And this coming IFA year we have a lot of money to spend but can't spend more than $250K on any one prospect. Let's get twenty young Latin pitchers who are athletic guys who can repeat their delivery. Maybe we will hit on 4 or 5 of them.

  • I'm re-reading this right now after this game lol....great article, one of my favs was the castro article the other week, loved that idea alot btw.

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    Well, at least there's some good news today:

  • Looks like its going to be tough getting that extension from Shark. I think Theo needs to drop the dual approach and be committed to the rebuild and start playing the young kids, so we can see what we have in them

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    In reply to Paris:

    what dual approach? have you seen any effort to commit to the present season in any way at all?

  • Shark's comments make it seem to me like he's happy to test the free agent waters.

    Keep pitching great dude, can't wait until we ship him off.

  • John, just back from the game. Can you please tell me why the Cubs decided to give up scoring runs for Lent?

  • In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    Haha! That was a bad idea.

    I almost went to the game myself. Kind of glad I didn't ;)

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    In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    So you're telling me this will be over on Sunday???? HUZZAH!!!!

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Yes sir. Sunday, April 16, 2017.

  • So john, who is the favorite for the 1st pick in the 2015 draft for the cubs to select?

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    In reply to Joshnk24:

    Daz Cameron (Mike's son) is currently considered the top pick. That will almost certainly change between now and the draft.

  • I always thought Kerrys arm problems were more likely related to his wipeout curve and slider he threw even as a 20YO. I think back to the Mets staffs of the late 60s, Ryan, Koosman, Seaver, McGraw, all of whom had long and productive big league careers. None of them threw breaking pitches when they first came up to the bigs. The silder Seaver started throwing in 1969 made him a Cy Young award winner. The Curve Ryan learned after being traded to the Angels made him the pre-eminent power pitcher for 2 decades. Something maybe more coaches, scouts and GMs need to consider.

  • One other thing above the Mets hurlers. Ryan and Seaver in particular , were classic drop-and -drive pitchers who used there legs well. Kerry and Prior, just as 2 examples, really never were drop-and -drive types, they relied more on generating armspeed with there upper bodies.

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