How Cubs top prospects Brennen Davis and Chase Strumpf have out-muscled the rigors of hitting development in odd season
KODAK, TN — Pitchers will always have the initiative. They decide what to throw, when and in which counts.
Hitting is reaction. The man in the box reacts to what the pitcher throws, where the pitcher throws it and decides whether or not to swing.
In player development circles, there’s a general belief that pitching has become easier to develop in recent years than hitting. There’s more of a template to follow in trying to improve an individual pitch, even if coaching and getting player buy-in is still paramount. Much of the most understood technology helps pitchers more than it helps hitters. Combine a pitch’s movement, velocity and the pitcher’s release (often phrased as a pitcher’s “stuff”) and you’ll have a decent amount of predicting power to tell whether a pitch has a chance to survive at the major league level.
In hitting, how efficiently a player transfers energy from their legs into their bat is important, but this data isn’t public, so public understanding isn’t as widespread. The quality of contact a hitter makes and their ability to lay off pitches outside the zone is important too, but both of those have a lot to do with what a pitcher does first. Throw a pitch high and tight and in order to square the ball up, a hitter needs to take his slightly inclined approach to the ball and flatten it out. Hitters react to the pitcher. There’s nothing like pitch movement, or “stuff,” for hitters.
Combine the complexity of hitting with the pandemic’s impact on the structure of the minor leagues and developing position players has never been so complex and necessary for the Cubs organization. Nine of the team’s Top 10 prospects are hitters, including Brennen Davis, a player some in the industry believe is a Top 20 overall prospect in MLB. Six of those hitters are currently at Class A or lower, arguably the most impressionable period of time for a young hitter. How well the Cubs can advance their position players will have a massive impact on how successful the current rebuild is when we all look back in a few years.
At the beginning of the 2021 minor league baseball season, an unexpected side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic was a slight development gap between hitters and pitchers. This was due in part to the nature of developing pitching. Mound work could be tracked by devices like a Rapsodo or Trackman, which can transmit real-time pitch movement information to pitchers. This gave them a barometer of how their stuff looked relative to how it has looked. While a pitcher’s perception might change with a righty or lefty in the box, this model of tracking sessions could mimic game action with reasonable accuracy. Hitters could only do so much.
“Pitchers came back throwing flames,” Davis said. “They didn’t miss a year of hand-eye coordination, being able to see spin, 500 at-bats.”
Even when hitters got back into the box on a regular basis, the landscape was different. Instead of playing two teams per week, to limit travel and exposure, series would be set up in 6-game sets, with Mondays reserved for travel. This eliminated the potential for 15-plus hours of travel in a 4-day span, a previous staple of minor league baseball. It created an environment where a hitter would see the same team 6 games in a row.
For some, this is an advantage. If a team’s scouting report on a player was underdeveloped or misinformed, a hitter could take advantage for multiple days in a row. But it also created a situation where for 6 days straight, a hitter might see the same approach from an opposing team’s pitchers. This could mean a full week where a hitter is seeing 10-20% more breaking balls than they would normally and a lower number of opportunities to get an “A swing” off, a commonly used term that means a hitter’s best swing.
In Davis’ case, this meant fastballs up-and-inside. Nearly every right-handed hitter has trouble covering pitches up and inside and for that reason, it’s exploited when the hitter has an advanced ability to lay off breaking balls off the plate, like Davis. With a right-handed pitcher’s natural tendency to miss arm-side, this means if a pitcher wants to locate a fastball up and in, their most common miss is going to be in on Davis’ hands. Davis has been hit 11 times this season in just 65 games at Double-A Tennessee. More than double the 5 times he was hit in 50 games with former Class A affiliate South Bend in 2019.
“[Davis] has no fear,” Double-A manager Mark Johnson said. “He gets right back in the box.”
Chase Strumpf, the Cubs second-round pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft, has experienced a similar effect. And his stat line shows it. Although Strumpf’s batting average sits below .220 heading into the fourth week of August, his on-base percentage is exceptional, meaning his overall offensive output, despite some struggle, has been right at league average for the Double-A level.
“It kind of ties in that mental side of hitting,” Strumpf said. “Studying their pitchers and knowing what they did to you that night before and coming out that next day and show them that you’re able to adjust.”
Hitter sees a tendency and takes advantage, then the pitcher adjusts. The hitters take some time to reassess and adjust back. Then the pitcher has another chance to counter. Something that might happen over the course of the season for major league hitters can happen over the course of days for minor league players this season. Especially because the Tennessee Smokies are scheduled to play the Los Angeles Angles and Cincinnati Reds Double-A affiliates a combined 72 times this season across a 138-game minor league regular season.
Thankfully for Davis and Strumpf, they have fostered some synergy to counteract the oddities of this minor league season. Both players made the High-A to Double-A leap this season on the same day, June 1. The promotion is widely considered one of the most difficult jumps to make on a player’s path to the major leagues.
“Going to the MLB is a big jump,” Double-A hitting coach Chad Allen said. “But as far as the learning process and the level of competition, Double-A to me is by far the biggest jump.”
Davis and Strumpf are roommates on the road, giving them time to pick each other’s brains about what they’re experiencing on the field. Strumpf (drafted after three successful seasons at UCLA) and Davis (drafted out of high school) may have a different experience and playing styles but their goal to be successful hitters pulls them together.
“If you have somebody who is like-minded and has the same goals as you,” Davis said. “It makes [everything] a lot easier.”
Davis and Strumpf will continue to develop in Double-A alongside the brilliant minds of their hitting coach Allen and assistant hitting coach Chad Remillard. They’ll refine their approaches in machine work, fine tune their swings to reach their optimal point-of-contact window to do as much damage as possible and reflect on at-bats in their hotel room on the road. The hope is next year they’ll do the same, but in Iowa.
Hitting development might be a touch behind pitching and it could close with another technological jump that benefits hitters, but relationships like the one Davis and Strumpf have could also prove advantageous to development as the minor leagues continue 6-game series in 2022.
“It does take a little time as a hitter to adjust,” Strumpf said. “But that’s kind of the fun of it.”