Casey Jacobson, Cubs at forefront of pitching development
Just over one year after Craig Breslow hung up his cleats — tying a bow on a career 3.45 ERA across 570-plus innings — he joined the Chicago Cubs organization as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Baseball Operations.
As Breslow reworked the team’s approach to implementing data into player development plans, he hired Casey Jacobson, a former collegiate pitcher and instructor at Driveline Baseball.
“The vision that Breslow put together prior to 2020 and what he sold me on coming aboard was really focusing on the players,” Jacobson said. “Focusing on their development and getting as individualized as possible.”
An integral part of individualizing player development plans is superb communication between departments. That means clear goals set by the front office, with timelines and KPIs (key performance indicators) defined, such that coordinators can determine plans of attack for the coaches that are in the most interaction with players on a given day.
During the Covid-19 minor league shutdown in 2020, the Cubs took their first crack at seeing gains from a reworked system by spending time developing the strength and workload capacity of pitchers like high schooler DJ Herz and 2019 9th-round high schooler Tyler Schlaffer. When both their velocities ticked up after proper nutrition and programming, the Cubs expanded the idea and ran a revamped but standard multi-week strength camp after the end of the 2020 season.
But the cost of development is not zero and come 2021, the organization ran into injuries with pitchers like Kohl Franklin, Michael McAvene, and Riley Thompson.
“One of the things that was really challenging last year was asking these guys to take on so much workload remotely,” Jacobson said. “And then speed up so quickly when we got to camp. We have made some adjustments there.”
Doubling down on their systems and making adjustments, the Cubs ran a novel offseason player development camp with around 30 of the team’s top prospects, many of whom were pitchers. The results so far have been exceptional. Herz has a 2022 velocity target 4-5 miles per hour above where he sat in high school and Franklin sat between 97-99 in his first live session against hitters in over a year, a 5-6 mph increase from 2019.
“The system itself wasn’t dramatically different,” Jacobson said. “But we were able to create more immediate feedback. With the guys being here every day and going through our assessment processes, we were able to make small tweaks to their programming with more up-to-date info.”
Simply measuring a player’s strength and mobility levels and tracking them over time as programs and other variables are adjusted is one of the simplest differences from prior to Breslow and others joining the organization. To reliably improve something, the organization needed to track it. And since, the fruits of their investment in tech and good communicators have been plentiful.
“All I want to see is our guys to go out and have success,” Jacobson said. “We build systems, we do all these things, but the thing that matters is that we’re getting our players better, we’re giving them the best chance to succeed on the field.”