Yesterday proved to be quite an eventful day for Jen-Ho Tseng. First, he came to Chicago in order to accept the 2017 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award from the Chicago Cubs organization, the second time the 22-year old has received that recognition in his four year Minor League career. But the award was not all the organization had in store for him. He also received an unexpected opportunity: the chance to make his first Major League start, in the midst of a division championship race no less.
A 6'1" 195 pound right hander from Taiwan, Jen-Ho Tseng came to the Cubs organization as a big 2013 international free agent signing, the same class that featured Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres. Signed as an 18 year old, Tseng was already a known commodity on the international stage, participating in the World Baseball Classic as the youngest player on the Chinese Taipei roster. A drop in velocity from the mid to the low-90s, combined with a frame that left little physical projection remaining, scared some suitors away but not the Cubs. The velocity has never returned, and at times throughout his development actually dropped further, but his advanced feel and classic four-pitch mix have seen him advance through the Cubs system with great speed.
Debuting in 2014, Tseng was an immediate hit as the Cubs placed him directly into full season ball with the Kane County Cougars. Still a teenager, Tseng posted a 6-1 record and 2.40 ERA on his way to earning the Cubs 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors. The next two years saw less success at the High-A and AA levels as Tseng struggled to maintain velocity and his lack of stamina in the middle innings of his outings began to raise doubts as to whether he could hold up as a starter at the Major League level. But right from the get-go 2017 proved a different animal.
Returning to Tennessee to begin this season, Tseng appeared stronger and began working deeper into games than he ever had before. Consistently working 6-7 innings for the Smokies while maintaining his velocity throughout, he earned a place on the Southern League All-Star team with a 7-3 record and 2.99 ERA in 15 starts, and then a promotion to AAA Iowa on July 4th. Not only did he not slow down upon his promotion to Des Moines, his results actually improved. In 9 starts with the I-Cubs Tseng went 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA. This breakthrough season brought Tseng his second Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award from the Cubs organization, as well as the inargural John Arguello Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award from Cubs Den.
The key to success for Tseng is getting ahead of hitters by working both sides of the plate with his fastball while mixing in a knucklecurve that he looks to keep in the strike zone. It is not a chase pitch for him. He uses it to change the eye levels of hitters, as he usually keeps all of his other offerings low in zone, and the pitch is often taken for a strike by hitters. Once he gets ahead he begins mixing in his best pitch, a changeup, that will often finish low and out of the zone. His average slider becomes a more frequent weapon as well. It doesn't generate a ton of swing and misses but he often locates it just off the edge of the plate, low-and-away to righties and low-and-in to lefties, leading to a lot of soft contact.
His best assets are his good command and feel for pitching. He does a terrific job mixing his pitches and keeps hitters off balance with the change in speeds. Tseng is also a cool customer. Bad calls, bad pitches, bad innings... doesn't matter. He takes it all in stride, his focus never seeming to waver from his next pitch. Joe Maddon got a taste of his unflappable nature yesterday and informed Tseng he would be getting today's start. He described the encounter in an interview yesterday, "'I guess you're in town to accept an award.' I said, 'How about you start tomorrow night's game instead?' He didn't even blanch. His interpreter was more taken by the situation than Jen-Ho."