Cubs Prospect Statistical Review - The Pitchers

The Minor League Baseball season begins next Thursday. I know I am weird, but I get just as stoked for that kick off as I do for the Major League season (and in many a down year in Cubs history actually more so). So once again it is time to take a quick look back at where our young players left off at the conclusion of the 2016 season. As I did last week with the position players I have singled out a group of top prospects I will follow throughout 2017. The top two sections are dedicated to starting pitchers and the bottom portion for relievers. As we discuss often on Cubs Den many of the pitchers currently listed as starters may ultimately end up in the bullpen which is why there will be more time and space dedicated to them.

My preferences when projecting future MLB starters from a group of prospects leans toward two key elements. The most obvious is overpowering stuff. A guy like Kerry Wood never needed to refine his command to high levels because his pitches were just so special. But there are very few prospects of his caliber, although Dylan Cease is close, and it is one of the reasons why Cease's high BB rate is not as concerning as it would be for pitchers with lower quality stuff.

For pitcher's not gifted with lightning in their arm the second key element becomes an emphasis not just on control (BB%) but more importantly on command (not just throwing strikes, but throwing quality strikes), which is difficult to track statistically but I will make an effort beginning this season to discuss it more thoroughly and try to emphasize statistics that help paint a portion of the picture even with the limited advanced information publicly available for minor league games.

The workload for starting pitchers takes a toll and the attrition rate at the position is widely known. The ability to pitch efficiently (a strong indicator of not just command, but pitchability) is a trait I value highly. Can a pitcher induce weak contact early in the count? Can he get a strikeout without wasting excessive pitches? Is he constantly working deep counts or working behind in the count? These are the main reasons I have favored the odds of pitchers like Ryan Williams and Zach Hedges as viable MLB starter candidates over those of more heralded prospects with better pure stuff such as Pierce Johnson and Rob Zastryzny. It is also why I have been more excited than most about the potential of Oscar de la Cruz since he is a guy who attacks the zone and works the corners leading to many quick outs and innings. With that in mind, stats I may look to start including throughout the season is pitches per start or more importantly pitches per plate appearance, but it will depend on whether I can access reliable information on those metrics for all the players listed.

Unlike the position player prospects, who as a whole controlled the strike zone with remarkable efficiency, we can see below that many of the Cubs pitching prospects struggled to throw strikes and were often their own worst enemy. Control and command are usually the last element of a pitcher's game to come around, and very few were actually hit hard by the opposition as evidenced by low batting averages against and high K rates, so there is hope for continued improvement from this group, especially considering the number of them that are still young and in the lower levels of the system. The current starters that are unable to master their control are often those that find new life as relievers.

The current reliever I am most excited to track throughout the season is Jose Paulino. The lefty possesses an above average fastball and devastating slider has been moved to the pen full time this year. It was a move I advocated throughout the second half last season, not just because it fits his repertoire and build, but also as a player who was already eligible for the Rule 5 draft in the offseason he needs to make rapid progress this season and prove worthy of addition to the 40 man roster otherwise it is likely the Cubs will be forced to include him in a trade or lose him next offseason for no return. But he has the stuff and the Cubs have not found a young power lefty to build their pen around despite trying numerous candidates recently. Paulino has a chance to remedy that situation, potentially as soon as next season. He could prove to be the next fast mover through the system like we witnessed with fellow SP convert Jose Rosario last season.

The 2017 Minor League Baseball season kicks off April 6th.

Reference Ranges

Rating FIP WHIP BB% K%
Great < 3.20 < 1.10 < 5.5 > 24.0
Average ~ 3.80 ~ 1.30 ~ 7.7 ~ 20.0
Poor > 4.40 > 1.50 > 8.5 < 15.0

NOTES: The numbers tend to skew a little different for relievers, especially K rates, which should be a few percentage points higher to be considered great, so I used < 18.0% and > 27.0% cutoff in their chart below.

Starting Pitchers

Cease A- 44.2 2.22 2.92 .174 1.16 13.7% 36.3% 1.70
De La Cruz A 27.2 3.25 2.14 .216 1.08 7.1% 31.0% 0.96
De La Cruz A- 8.1 1.08 3.41 .167 0.84 5.9% 41.2% 0.38
Clifton A+ 119.0 2.72 3.05 .219 1.16 8.3% 26.2% 0.68
Albertos R 4.0 0.00 1.37 .077 0.50 7.1% 50.0% 1.50
Underwood AA 58.2 4.91 5.09 .276 1.65 11.3% 16.8% 1.31
Underwood A- 4.2 1.93 3.33 .177 0.64 0.0% 11.1% 0.71
Underwood A 8.2 2.08 2.09 .167 1.04 11.8% 35.3% 1.17
Hatch DNP  DNP
Zastryzny AAA 81.0 4.33 4.17 .219 1.21 9.1% 22.7% 1.45
Zastryzny AA 54.2 4.28 4.36 .245 1.28 8.9% 18.7% 0.93
Hudson A- 58.2 5.06 5.51 .256 1.65 15.6% 15.6% 2.81
Mills AAA 58.0 4.19 4.74 .271 1.40 7.6% 21.6% 1.17
Mills AA 67.2 2.39 2.13 .233 1.02 4.7% 26.4% 1.14
Williams AAA 44.0 3.27 4.43 .256 1.25 6.6% 16.6% 1.38
Hedges AA 47.1 2.47 3.15 .249 1.14 4.7% 16.8% 3.33
Hedges A+ 96.2 2.89 3.40 .240 1.14 4.5% 15.6% 1.71
Steele A 77.1 5.00 3.84 .296 1.71 10.8% 21.1% 1.18
Alzolay A 120.1 4.34 3.87 .255 1.22 5.6% 16.3% 0.91
Clark A- 6.2 2.70 3.02 .276 1.20 0.0% 31.0% 2.33
Clark R 5.0 0.00 2.52 .177 0.60 0.0% 23.5% 1.40

Relief Pitchers

Rosario AAA 21.1 2.95 2.88 .296 1.50 6.4% 19.2% 1.31
Rosario AA 16.1 2.76 2.83 .183 0.86 4.8% 23.8% 1.00
Rosario A+ 16.1 1.65 3.30 .238 1.41 11.3% 19.7% 1.43
Johnson AAA 63.0 6.14 5.28 .250 1.63 14.9% 26.0% 1.56
Pena AAA 63.1 3.41 3.17 .199 1.09 9.0% 31.6% 0.60
McNeil A+ 54.0 2.33 3.47 .228 1.24 9.4% 27.2% 0.94
Paulino A 40.0 3.15 3.75 .228 1.15 5.9% 18.8% 1.50
Paulino A- 35.0 0.51 1.91 .156 0.63 2.4% 29.6% 1.64
Hockin A- 12.0 6.00 2.44 .286 1.50 7.6% 26.4% 1.63


Markey AA 130.2 3.17 4.81 .255 1.33 8.1% 11.7% 0.99
Stinnett A+ 116.0 4.27 3.87 .253 1.33 8.1% 19.5% 1.19
Morrison A+ 35.2 1.77 3.01 .218 1.04 7.3% 26.8% 2.75
Morrison A 92.1 2.24 2.70 .239 1.17 6.1% 22.4% 1.74
K. Miller A 73.2 2.57 2.89 .227 1.09 6.1% 18.9% 1.15
Sands A 74.2 5.91 4.73 .268 1.62 12.2% 14.9% 0.62
M.Rondon A- 57.1 1.10 3.54 .232 1.26 9.2% 20.4% 0.62
Moreno A- 30.0 0.90 3.77 .150 0.70 4.4% 19.5% 2.00
Moreno R 32.1 2.78 3.13 .250 1.08 3.1% 25.2% 1.31
T. Miller A- 22.2 3.97 5.36 .289 1.32 4.3% 14.9% 0.92
T. Miller R 6.0 0.00 4.62 .111 0.83 14.3% 14.3% 0.86
Marquez DSL 54.2 1.48 3.18 .221 1.23 10.1% 21.1% 2.15



Leave a comment
  • Do you see Ryan Williams as a possible end of the rotation guy? What kind of groundball rate did he have?

  • In reply to Elmorto34:

    I do. He generates a lot of groundballs and gets a lot of weak contact early in counts. He has an above average two seamer and then mixes in three fringe average secondary pitches. The pure stuff isn't great, but he works the outer corner as well as any pitcher in the system, changes speeds and rarely gives a hitter a mistake in the middle of the zone. He'll never be a dominant guy but he can give you solid 5th starter innings.

    The obvious concern with Williams is he missed over 2/3 of last season with a shoulder injury. He needs to come back fully covered. He doesn't have velo and stuff to spare if he has to work at less than 100%. Health will be paramount for him.

  • In reply to Elmorto34:

    His GB% has been above 55% the last two years.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    What level do you think that Paulino will start at this year and what is his velocity when he pitches in relief? Realistically if he starts at AA and dominates in relief and gets promoted to AAA and dominates there....couldn't he be a possible addition to the cubs bullpen later in the season?

  • fb_avatar

    Woops my bad....i just noticed that he finished the year in Low A and not high A. So i assume that he'll probably start the season at high-A and not AA.

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    He'll start in high A. But my guess is he will end the year in AA, if not AAA. As I said I think he could have a year like Rosario where he spends about 1/3 of the season at each spot.

  • Great article & great points, Michael. Esp on the pitch counts/quality. We talk about batters working the counts & driving up the pitches... Which the Cubs hitters do very well. Getting into the opponents pen earlier in games. So the reverse is the goal when our pitchers are on the mound. I was always keeping an eye on the pitch counts while watching games since they started putting them up on telecasts.

    Yes I'm stoked for the Cubs season, but still really excited for our prospects & seeing which pitchers can keep moving forward to be part of a future wave.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Yep. Spot on.

    One of the main tenets of The Cubs Way is controlling the strike zone for both hitters and pitchers. Much of their development is based on and gauged by how well they can do this.

    And this doesn't just mean pitchers getting Ks and avoiding walks (or the opposite for hitters). Although Cubs pitchers struck out the 3rd most batters in 2016 and hitters drew the most walks in all of baseball.

    For pitchers it can also mean getting the batter to swing at the pitches you want him to swing at (by setting him up with pitch sequencing, etc.). It certainly means command of your pitches within the strike zone. It means gaining the right kind of movement on your pitches to induce weak contact. High quality advance scouting and knowledge of the hitter's weaknesses and tendencies helps here as well.

    Mastering these abilities will lead to low batting average against and low WHIP (2 of the most important tracking stats to limiting your opponents runs). Cubs pitchers led the MLB in both categories by a wide margin despite being middle of the pack in pitch velocities. The Cubs were also 2nd overall in Pitch Type Value according to Fangraphs.

    Whatever Bosio and company are doing at the major league level is working, and you can be sure it is being taught from rookie ball on up. And that's why I too am stoked for the pitching coming up the ranks.

    Whether Kyle Hendricks opened this front office's eyes to the fact that there's more than one profile for a dominant starter or if they knew it already and that's why they went out and got him, they've continued to draft pitchers that are cut from the same cloth.

    In fact, the last two Cubs minor league pitchers of the year, 10th rounder Ryan Williams and 8th rounder Preston Morrison, fit the Hendricks mold. Both have above average command of at least one pitch and usually more on any given day. That's a big part of controlling the strike zone.

    12th rounder Trevor Clifton credited learning to be a pitcher instead of a thrower for his success this past season. Not only did he improve his fastball command and foster a more effective change up in the 2nd half, but he also spoke about learning how to set up hitters and the "art" of pitching.

    Williams was injured this past season (shoulder) but in 2015 he was green in BB%, FIP and WHIP with no categories in red while Clifton and Morrison had no categories in red this past season but more than one in green.

    Limiting your liabilities and being above average at more than one aspect of your job is a good way to succeed. If last year is a true indicator, should we expect Moreno (starter) and Paulino (reliever) to boost their prospect value this season?

    Can't wait to find out. Thursday can't come fast enough!

  • In reply to Quedub:

    The Cubs staff threw the most sliders in the league by a very wide margin, and were also top ten in cutters, while being next to last in curveball percentage. I'm not sure if it is an organizational philosophy to favor one breaking ball over the other (plenty of their prospects throw a curve), just random in that the pitchers they had happened to favor the pitch, or the team is making a concerted effort to acquire guys with the ability to throw that pitch.

    Clifton made great strides last year. He still has room for improvement, but of the starters with the stuff to project as better than back of rotation guys he is the most polished, which if you have followed John's reports for the past few years Clifton has come a very long way in a short time.

    I'm not sure what to make of Moreno. I haven't seen him much. But from what I have it appears he gets by a lot on deception (throws more over the top than most pitchers) and generating downward plane on his sinker. It seems to take full advantage of his frame and he is able to throw strikes and keep the ball low, but you see very few pitchers relying on that delivery type. I need to see more before I really know what to make of him.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    On Moreno: Me too. I've only seen a few youtube clips of him throw. What I was most encouraged by lately is John's or AZ Phil's report (I forget which) that his velo was up to 92-93 this spring.

    Previously he'd been reported around 89 with his FB. Also, the leading statistical indicators I look to (BB%, K%, BAA, WHIP and age comparable to his league's avg.) all reflect well on Erling.

    Given this will be his 2nd full season after TJS, his potential for a mini-breakout is intriguing.

    On Clifton: Right there with you. Ever since John (and others) had reported on Clifton's raw stuff and being an overslot 12th rounder out of high school, I've been following closely. I'm pretty patient (especially with prep draftees), so I was encouraged with the mini-steps he made in his first couple of seasons.

    2016 wasn't much of a surprise, but it was pleasant so he him make good. He went from being a possible back-end starter/middle relief guy to having proven stamina with a MOR ceiling. This will be a big season for him as AA is definitely a more difficult pitching environment.

    If he can pitch 140 innings with around 25% K, less than 10% BB, around a .230-.240 BAA and 1.20 or less WHIP in his age 21-22 season, the Cubs may have something and he could start showing up in some top 100 lists.

    On pitch type: It's probably a combo of both organizational philosophy and maximizing the strengths of the pitchers they have. Probably more the latter. But I do see evidence that organizationally, the Cubs value command and understanding the "art" of pitching perhaps more than most other organizations. In short, for the Cubs movement (especially downward movement) of pitches and fastball command are at least as important as velocity if not more so.

Leave a comment