Picture by Todd Johnson
As I am sure most of you have noticed the past couple of years, Dan Kantrovitz, the Cubs VP of Amateur Scouting, goes about drafting players a little differently than Jason McLeod. From 2012 until 2018, McLeod relied mainly on taking college players who were statistically better bets to make it to the majors because they had higher floors but not necessarily higher ceilings. McLeod took very few risks in taking high school players after Albert Almora in the first round of his first draft in 2012. As for prep arms, those picks were few and far between.
Even throughout McLeod‘s drafts, you can almost count on your hands the number of the high school pitchers he took and signed. In 2012, McLeod picked Duane Underwood and Paul Blackburn. In 2014 he took Carson Sands, Dylan Cease, and Justin Steele in rounds four through six. He came back again to get Austyn Willis in the 18th round. In 2015, he took Bryan Hudson and that was it. Even though he was technically still in charge in 2019, the picks of DJ Herz, Tyler Schlaffer, Porter Hodge, and Johzan Oquendo were attributed more to Matt Dorey than to McLeod.
Kantrovitz is much more of a risk taker. He’s not afraid to pull the trigger on a high school player and fail. In McLeod’s tenure, Justin Steele (2014) was the only prep pitcher to make it to the Cubs and that’s been in the last two summers. That took him across 6 levels of play, seven years of development, TJS, and other assorted injuries for Steele to get there.
Over the last two years and three drafts, Kantrovitz has taken Koen Moreno in 2020, and Drew Gray, Erian Rodriguez, Dominic Hambley, and Wilson Cunningham in 2021. This summer, Kantrovitz went all in with six high school pitchers. Whether he can sign all of them, remains to be seen in the next few days. Odds are four or five of them will sign. This year, Kantrovitz took Jackson Ferris, Nazier Mule, Mason McGwire, JP Wheat, Louis Rujano, and Blake Blatter.
Drafting a high school pitcher is the most risky selection in any draft. It’s always been that way and will always be that way. They lack experience and the possibility for injury is greater as their arms get stretched out to pitch at the minor league level. Koen Moreno only pitched in the last game of the year in 2021 and that was in instructs. Drew Gray underwent Tommy John surgery at the beginning of spring training this year and just started soft tossing a couple weeks ago. It’s going to take time to develop pitchers.
Why could Kantrovitz take the risk now?
Well, the answer is things have changed greatly in the last three to four years.
One only needs to look at the success of prep selections DJ Herz, Porter Hodge, and Tyler Schlaffer to know that something is working. And part of that is the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure. The other part is the young guys’ work ethic and talent.
Under the direction of Craig Breslow, the Cubs’ MiLB pitching development structure went to a whole new level in the Cubs system. You hear people talk about the Cubs’ pitch lab being a special place in Arizona. It is, but that pitch lab is not unique. I hate to tell you this, but it’s at every affiliate, even at away games. Yes, everything that they do in the lab in Mesa is actually loaded up on a bus, put in a padded suitcase, and gets taken to every game by the tech guy and development coach for each affiliate.
This so-called “portable pitch lab” involves a series of cameras that capture a pitcher’s motion and the path of the ball. It records the data to software that translates it in real time. There are velocity readings, horizontal and vertical movement, angles, and pitch wakes. The “Pitch Lab” is not just a building in Mesa, it’s a philosophy used by the entire system that shares data in real time to coaches and players. It goes with each affiliate wherever they go and takes about two minutes, if that, to set up in the bullpen.
In my many travels the past few summers, I have seen the evolution of this system. Now, the pitching coach and development coach will both be in the bullpen with the camera set up as well as having computer/phone tablets getting feedback on every pitch in a side session. In fact, those coaches can look at all the data after every pitch. In fact many of them do, especially if the pitcher is working on a new grip or trying to keep their delivery in the same tunnel.
What is great is that the data has its own lexicon that does not change from affiliate to affiliate and from roving coordinator to pitching coach to starting pitcher to bullpen guys. They all talk about the same types of things and speak the same language which makes it easier going from level to level.
All of these changes are not new to baseball. They have been around for a few years. The Cubs were just a little late to the party. The tech, in and of itself, is not going to make a high school prep pitcher into a valued prospect. However, using the confluence of that data and the Cubs coaching infrastructure relaying said data in terms that the pitcher can buy into and see change happen in real time does get the job done.
There is one small problem, though – a pitcher can’t take the data with them to the mound in a game. If they could. I could see some guys whipping out a phone to check the movement on a pitch. But they can’t. So, the key for these young guys is applying what they learn in their side sessions and to carry those lessons over to the game and apply it in game situations.
And to be quite frank, none of this is ruining the game.
All this tech does is show pitchers how they are pitching in an interactive way. Don Cooper used to say that pitchers “need to stay on top of the curve when they throw it to get a bigger break and tighter spin.” All the tech does is measure whether a pitcher is doing just that by measuring the spin rate and movement. Pitching has not changed because of this tech. Grips have not changed. What has is how coaches are getting the pitcher to better understand what his pitches are doing by using technology to help show them. That’s it.
And for the Cubs, their young HS pitchers are into that data which could explain why Kantrovitz is taking more risks than his predecessor.