Cubs prospect Caleb Kilian brings control of strike zone and growth mindset to his new organization
KODAK, Tenn. — Caleb Kilian checked his phone one last time before heading out for a bullpen session at the San Francisco Giants Double-A affiliate’s stadium in Richmond, Va. It was 4:01 p.m. Eastern time, one minute after the MLB trade deadline had passed.
On his phone was a call from the Giants front office saying he had been traded to the Chicago Cubs. Kilian went back to his apartment to pack and the next day he was en route to Kodak, Tenn., home of the Tennessee Smokies.
“I was overwhelmed,” Kilian said. “I was bummed I was going to leave my friends, but I’m super excited for the opportunity. It’s a true blessing.”
If Kilian brings one thing to the Cubs organization, it’s the ability to control the strike zone. The number of walks he allows per nine innings in his minor league career is 1.2. The major league average for starting pitchers with 70-plus innings thrown this season is a shade under 3.0.
His outlier control, five-pitch repertoire and desire to improve are clear reasons why the Cubs targeted his arm in trading away Kris Bryant.
Kilian’s primary fastball is a sinker that sits 93-94 mph. He compliments that pitch with a hard cutter and a sweepy curveball that moves horizontally more than it does vertically. He also throws a four-seam fastball and changeup. That changeup is the pitch he is focused on most at present. He has changed grips, seam orientations and cues all in hopes of creating another average to plus pitch for his already deep repertoire.
“I was playing with grip, trying to get [my changeup] not to cut,” Kilian said. “Trying to get it to run more or at least just go down. I kind of have a funky grip right now – it’s the vulcan.”
The vulcan changeup grip is one that has become popular for pitchers who have difficulty generating arm-side movement on their changeup. Instead of a standard circle changeup grip, like Kyle Hendricks’, the ball is wedged between the middle and ring finger (example). The idea is that a pitcher’s hand is therefore preset to pronate, the primary movement necessary for a pitcher to generate the movement profile necessary for a good changeup. Pronation is the rotation of the hand inward towards the body.
When Kilian was at Texas Tech, he threw only three pitches: sinker, curveball and a sparsely used changeup. Pro ball has given him the chance to develop into the pitcher he is today. One with more weapons and a simple goal.
“I want to master all of my pitches,” Kilian said. “I don’t know if I’ll end up getting more or changing some, who knows, but I want to master all of my pitches right now.”
Kilian’s mastery of his individual pitches comes with the added hack of being able to throw anything for a strike consistently. His deliberate practice in flat-ground work, pushing to locate each of his pitches with less than 100% intensity, carries over to his in-game mentality. His short and long term goals are simply to get better and he has the tools to do so.
There’s even a simple line you can reduce Kilian’s mentality to:
“I just try,” Kilian said, “to hit the mitt.”