Game: 4/8 Tennessee Smokies and Chattanooga Lookouts

Final: Smokies 8, Lookouts 0

Summary: The Tennessee Smokies Dominate

The Smokies won in every aspect of this game on opening night in Knoxville. They out hit the Lookouts, out fielded the Lookouts, and out pitched the Lookouts. Really any aspect of the game of baseball the Smokies did better this night. Most notably, the pitchers for the Smokies, Cam Sanders, Bryan Hudson, Javier Assad, and Brandon Hughes combined for a three hit shutout and struck out 14. Bryce Ball had a multi-hit game, Luis Vazquez scored two runs, Chase Strumpf had a hit and walked twice, and Yonathon Perlaza added a two RBI base knock.

Player of the Game: Cam Sanders

Cam Sanders stats speak for themselves, 4 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 8K. What impressed me was a couple of things: 1.) Sanders’ curveball. This outing especially, Sanders’ curveball looked like a plus pitch. I know his name gets tossed around often as a potential bullpen arm, but I think he does have starter type stuff, including a mid 90’s fastball and an average changeup. 2.) His delivery and timing seem more clean than last year.

For comparison here is Sanders from the windup last year in August:

Here is Sanders from the windup on 4/8:

Sanders ditched his double toe tap on the rubber for a speedier windup, his glove is starting at his belt opposed to underneath his chin, and it might be the camera angle, but it appears he has his hips a little more activated and almost preloaded. These might seem like little subtle changes, but there is a lot less wasted movement in Sanders’ delivery. The glove is closer to where he’ll throw from, there is less timing to get everything activated with the double toe tap, and there is less movement in his legs to get loaded. I’ll admit I’m not a pitching guru by any stretch of the imagination, but these changes do seem to be easier to repeat than the windup Sanders had last year. Generally, simpler, cleaner deliveries are easier to repeat, and some times better command follows.

What You Might Have Missed: Bryce Ball

He’s a tough guy to miss on the baseball diamond given his tall 6’6 frame, but after being acquired from the Atlanta Braves last year in the Joc Pederson trade, Ball had a quiet year offensively. We know he has light tower power in batting practice, but during games in 2021 he didn’t show it off much. He hit seven home runs for the South Bend Cubs, but he also struck out more than once a game on average while walking a ton. His approach seemed to be to use the entire count to try and hit the baseball with as much authority as he could. However, he didn’t hit for much average. His whole season was Adam Dunn-esque. This game on opening day however, we seem to have a different Bryce Ball with a changed approach. He’s attacking the baseball earlier on in the count, seemingly emphasizing contact over doing as much damage to a baseball as possible. This game he took what the pitcher gave him and attacked hittable pitches during 0-0 and 0-1 counts for a couple singles. If he can continue with that approach, with some discipline at the plate that he’s shown, he could also work his way into more hitter friendly counts where he can punish baseballs. And yes, I will admit the season just started this week, and it’s too early to tell if Bryce Ball has figured out a better approach to hitting, but he does have two multi hit games already this year in the Cubs system. Last year, he had 8 during the entire half season he played in South Bend.

What to Keep an Eye On: Morel’s Defensive Positioning

During this game Christopher Morel played center field, but for the next couple games he played shortstop and third base. His defensive flexibility is one his strongest attributes and what will help him make a big league team. What I’m curious to see this year is if the Cubs decide to specialize him at a certain position. Last year, his innings were split evenly between center field, right field, and third base, while he got some time in at second, short, and left. He rarely played shortstop last year actually, and he spent most of his innings in center field like he did this game. Keep an eye out for Morel’s defensive positioning, especially toward the end of the year where his defensive position could clue us to where the Cubs envision playing him on the major league club. Even if he can play just about every position on the diamond, that doesn’t mean the Chicago Cubs will play him everywhere on the diamond.

Feature photo of Cam Sanders by Micah Manuel