Picture by Todd Johnson
Over the past two seasons, how the Cubs develop hitters and pitchers has changed drastically. But what has not changed is how some people evaluate talent in the wake of those changes. There are those who still offer projections of guys in rookie league or low class A. What we are beginning to realize is that all those projections that writers make are quickly outdated, often in less than a year.
There are several reasons to come to this conclusion. It’s not just one particular thing that has made me change my mind, but it’s more an amalgamation of the following topics.
1. Physical Structure Design
We’ve seen guys that made velocity jumps or power numbers in the past few years by adding or subtracting weight. It does not matter if it’s a hitter or a pitcher, but we’ve seen players put on some muscle fairly quickly or slim down that reshapes how they play the game. In 2021, Zac Leigh went from a late day three draft pick who could throw about 92 or 93 to a guy who regularly sits at 95 as he added 10 pounds of muscle.
Javier Assad is an example who basically lost what some may call “some baby fat” and was in much better shape. He dominated at both Tennessee and Iowa and impressed in a brief stint in Chicago. No one, and I mean no one, saw Assad’s ascension coming.
Last year, we saw Walker Powell make a huge jump from throwing 89-90 up to 93-94. I read a projection of him last winter that Powell might do OK at Low-A but would begin struggling at High-A. Welp, he destroyed Low A, high A, and Double-A because of his physical improvement which the writer in no way could project last August. And to be quite honest, no one could.
We saw Brennen Davis add some muscle in 2021 to his upper half that generated much more power than he had at South Bend. I am thinking the same thing is going to happen this winter with Owen Caissie.
2. Buying in to Tech Data
In watching bullpen session after bullpen session the past two summers, most pitchers now embrace the tech the Cubs use to analyze pitching. Whether it’s horizontal or vertical movement or mile per hour or spin rate or how efficiently the ball flows through the air, players are now buying in. What started out as a few guys being interested, now it’s become standard operating procedure for every Cubs pitching prospect to check out their data. In the bullpen, that sometimes happens after every pitch, especially when they’re working on a new one. You can’t do that on the mound, but that is what is happening behind the scenes and it’s turning out some high end pitches. The old way involved a radar gun and guys charting pitches during the game. Now, the tech provides all that data and much, much, much more.
As a result, we’re seeing guys make huge changes in what they throw and how they throw it in just a few short weeks. So when someone writes or says a pronouncement about possible future performance of a recent draft pick or a prospect, those projections don’t hold water for me at all. None, zip, zilch.
That prognostication is only going to be good for that day and that’s it. I’ve seen a pitcher take where he puts his thumb on the baseball and it changes the shape of not one pitch but three or four as he can move that thumb up and down the side of the baseball to generate four different slider types. And that came in actually less than a day. A month later, he was in Double-A tearing it up.
So what does this all mean for the future?
If we can’t take what writers say about what kind of prospect this player is going to be, how do we evaluate said players?
Ideally it comes down to players’ athleticism, skills they have, what they can build on, and work ethic/makeup. A player’s mental make up and willingness to change and adapt becomes much more important in selecting guys. Athleticism is always going to be number one along with just natural talent. But their willingness to work hard every day at their craft is just as valuable as that athleticism.
The baseball world is changing quickly and so is the technology that is driving that change.
Last year, the Cubs tech guys for each affiliate went from a standard three camera set up to capture data at the start of the year to 5 to then 7 by year’s end. Having seven cameras (maybe more in 2023) is providing much more data than they’ve ever had before on performance and that data is what the players have bought into to make changes.
So, when next year comes, I’m going to be focused on just the natural talents of a player has at that stage in their career and how they are working to get better. Whether it’s the draft picks the Cubs take next summer or international free agents, or what I am seeing how South Bend‘s players do throughout the course of the year, I am going to focus on skills and how they change over the course of time.
In getting to see them every few weeks, that’s enough time for me in between games to pick up on those changes. If I saw them every day, those little subtle differences might not show up, but when I see them twice a month for a few games apiece, then they become much more pronounced.
It’s OK to read those projections about players, but know that they can change drastically in just a short amount of time. They don’t hold as much weight as they used to. And that is a good thing for development.
Seems like the best aspect of these changes is that we now have a good thirty pitchers and thirty position players with the potential to step up in a big way, including many that in the past would have been considered merely organizational fodder (like Assad).
I agree Todd – That’s one reason I enjoy tinkering with my top prospect lists all throughout the season. As pitchers add new pitches, increase velocity, and change arm angles, they improve and begin to dominate, thus propelling them up my list. As hitters add muscle, improve launch angle and improve their pitch recognition, they improve and begin to dominate, again moving up my list. No list is ever a done deal – it’s always a work in progress.
Terrific post. It shows how much development now can from a system, and how much the baseball world is changing.