Data versus feel: Cubs pitching prospects Jensen, Bain take different paths to their own development
SOUTH BEND, IN — Less than 24 hours after being removed in the first inning of his July 13 start, Max Bain threw off the bullpen mound down the first base line in South Bend.
“I just want to see myself do it,” Bain says after the side session.
He still had some juice in the tank after only throwing 33 pitches the night before. And when his body still feels right, it helps to get back on the mound and mix his offerings, solidifying the gameplan he had entering the abbreviated start.
The outing was one of Bain’s shortest of his debut professional season, but the takeaways for a player as data-centric as Bain are rarely limited to the box score.
“In terms of pitch shapes, I was pretty happy. My stuff was good,” Bain says. “The data looked good, which is hard to say given it didn’t go in my favor.”
Some players on the High-A South Bend Cubs are not as tapped into the numbers as Bain.
Ryan Jensen, the Cubs 2019 first-round pick, doesn’t consider himself a “Rapsodo guy,” referring to the name of a small black-and-red box placed between a mound and home plate during batting practice or side sessions between starts to provide real-time feedback on a pitch’s velocity, movement and spin.
Jensen and Bain represent two of the most intriguing pitching prospects in the Cubs system, a pair of right-handers who are hoping to one day be pitching side-by-side in the Chicago rotation. The common state of how Bain and Jensen approach their own development demonstrates how different the mindset of a pitching prospect can be and how an organization strives to help both succeed.
Jensen’s preference for feel and instinct manifests in his ability to generate plus arm-side movement on his sinker. He speaks about the future of his slider without mentioning what adjustments he would make to the pitch’s horizontal and vertical movement.
“I just want to have a nice slant to it,” Jensen says. “Some depth with tight break.”
Bain rewatches all his outings the next day, logging his intended pitch location in a third-party app. The app then calculates how much he’s missing his intended location by and in which direction based on the result of the pitch.
“I haven’t even asked for the correlations yet,” Bain says. “It’s a long-term project.”
Jensen only watches back outings if something felt off with his mechanics or a poor performance sparks a need to reflect, trusting what he felt on the mound.
‘Stuff’ has become a shorthand way of referring to the combination of a pitch’s movement, velocity and the efficiency of its spin. A pitcher with good stuff has the ability to generate swing and miss, one of the most valuable results a pitcher can induce on any individual pitch.
George Thanopoulos — the South Bend Cubs player development coach and pitching coordinator at Elite Baseball in Newport Beach, CA — is one of the minds that focuses on improving the Cubs’ young talent.
“Let’s see how good we can make a guy’s pitches so it allows them to not be so locked in on one spot in the zone,” Thanopoulos says. “Stuff always wins.”
Thanopoulos is quick to acknowledge that what might work for a guy like Jensen might not work for a player like Bain.
“You have to understand how each player takes in information,” Thanopoulos says.
Beyond a player’s on-mound performance, much of the development work to improve something like ‘stuff’ comes in side sessions a pitcher throws between starts. Here coaches and players can tinker with internal and external cues in hopes of correcting problems that pop up throughout the grind of a season, refine pitches or tweak mechanics.
For Jensen’s side sessions — and almost all pitchers on South Bend — there is a Rapsodo running, pulling pitch information from the point of ball release and feeding data to an iPad that can be viewed by Thanopoulos or South Bend pitching coach Tony Cougoule in between pitches if they choose.
“We’ll make sure his [pitches] are on the right track,” Thanopoulos says. “But we’re not talking data in between every pitch… [Jensen] wants less information upfront.”
Jensen also wants to improve his ability to get his four-seam fastball inside to left-handed hitters more consistently. Because most of his misses are arm side, if he misses in location with his four-seam to a left-hander it means the pitch is out over the plate. To help him achieve this task, he uses a 6-foot tall, blue-and-white plastic silhouette of a hitter that gives him a visual stand-in of a left-hander standing in the batter’s box.
“I have to really think about keeping my front side closed and driving my hand through the zone, through the catcher’s glove,” Jensen says.
Bain’s side sessions have a different feel. He’ll ask for the spin efficiency of a pitch between throws, hoping to keep it in a certain window to achieve the movement profile he thinks will allow it to be effective to both left- and right-handed hitters.
Much of Bain’s repertoire is new. He started throwing his changeup for the first time this season and the pitch has generated an ample amount of whiffs. He tweaked his slider grip to a two-seam orientation with the two seams just to the right of his index and middle finger. His cue to execute the pitch is to keep the palm of his up before he releases the ball. The results so far suggest the pitch has a strong ability to generate ground balls and whiffs with consistency.
“There’s a seam-shifted component to my slider,” Bain says, referring to an advanced baseball concept know as ‘seam-shifted wake,’ which allows a pitch to move more than a tracking system like Rapsodo indicates due to a nuance in the airflow around the ball as it spins towards the plate.
“Bain could probably come out here and teach us a thing or two based on his background in pitch design and what he’s done to get himself to where he is,” Thanopoulos says.
But the key to all development, as Thanopoulos says, is to see changes stick on the field, regardless of what development approach a player aligns with. Much of the past year’s work came remotely; development was in a vacuum that didn’t fully mimic a competitive game situation. The Cubs’ alternate site, a third-party facility or the team’s complex in Arizona aren’t what Jensen and Bain are experiencing now — a stadium filled with fans against an opponent who will do anything to come out ahead.
“Implementing changes outside of a controlled environment is tough,” Thanopoulos says. “Sometimes it’s tough for a guy to make that flip.”
For Bain, he had a goal of getting to High-A this season. After being assigned to South Bend out of minor league camp, he achieved his goal. As this season has progressed, his mindset changed subconsciously from “I have nothing to lose” to “I really don’t want to mess this up.”
After his recent outing, he realized this flip in his mentality. He hopes talking through it with Cougoule and digging it out of his subconscious is enough to help him right the ship and take him back to his old mindset.
“Knowledge is power,” Bain says. “I can attack from here.”