Pitching infrastructure taking center stage for Cubs in 2021
The Cubs starting lineup features a group of players with impressive track records, including 13 combined All-Star appearances.
This team figures to score their fair share of runs over a full season, but the Cubs’ fortunes will ultimately come down to run prevention.
Pitching and defense are still the name of the game for this team and manager David Ross is always pointing to those two pillars as keys to success.
Outside perception of this pitching staff might be a little underwhelming but internally, the Cubs are very confident in the group they have. A major reason for that is the coaching staff and gameplanning group working behind the guys on the mound.
The term “pitching infrastructure” has been mentioned often around the Cubs and it has been a big part of the success that carried this team to playoff appearances in five of the last six years.
The Cubs will once again need to count on that group in 2021.
“I have a lot of confidence in our pitching department,” Ross said. “That’s proven. They’ve done a really good job of getting the most out of superstars and guys that may not even have been on the radar for other teams.
“We’re really good here at identifying strengths and weaknesses and things that maybe we can pull out that haven’t been used in a little bit or maybe a different way to do some things on the mound and our prep and how we want to pitch guys.”
Ross has seen this pitching infrastructure group grow over the last seven years. He was a part of it as a player, sitting in on meetings as the backup catcher. He then spent three years in the Cubs front office and now views the run prevention group through the “manager” lens.
Through it all, Tommy Hottovy, Mike Borzello and Chad Noble have been constants in the group.
Hottovy is now the pitching coach but spent four years serving as the team’s run prevention coordinator. Borzello was hired in 2011 as the Cubs catching coach but has since seen his role morph into an associate pitching/catching and strategy coach. Noble has been the team’s bullpen catcher since 2014.
Brad Mills is in Hottovy’s former role (now called Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting) and Chris Young is the Cubs bullpen coach. Alex Smith serves as the data and development coordinator and Craig Breslow holds the title as “vice president, pitching” in addition to his assistant GM role.
Combined, they run the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab” and are focused on helping the team’s pitchers maximize their potential to get outs however they can. That could be with pitch sequencing, spin rate, changing the shape of a certain pitch, altering a pitcher’s tempo, changing where the pitcher sets up on the rubber or a slew of other tweaks.
Alec Mills is particularly fond of the slow-motion camera.
“That’s where I can see where my hand is on the ball,” Mills said. “If I think it’s behind it, but it’s not — obviously that’s the reason [behind] getting a little more cut, a little more sink, stuff like that.
“It’s a wealth of information that you gotta have to try to wrangle in and just do with it what you can.”
Some adjustments are arm-related, like shortening up Dillon Maples’ delivery in an effort to help him throw more strikes with his dynamic stuff. Other adjustments are focused on the lower half, like Rex Brothers’ back leg that has been part of the key behind his strong spring.
It’s also about knowing when each guy should use certain pitches and augmenting their repertoire. Adbert Alzolay added a slider to his mix at the alternate site last season and that pitch was a driving force behind his insertion in the Opening Day rotation.
During the games, there is a heavy emphasis on pitching to a scouting report and lining the defense up behind a particular pitcher.
“It’s all encompassing,” Ross said. “Try to look at every angle. I think that’s why they’re so good. There’s no stone unturned when it comes to how to actually get the hitter out. They’re very good at making you feel like they’re all-in and want success for each individual guy and identify what that is for them and getting buy-in from the player.
“At the end of the day, convincing the player is the No. 1 goal. When you get the player to buy in and then they have success, that builds confidence and conviction when you go out there to compete.”
The Cubs have certainly had buy-in from their new pitchers this year.
Jake Arrieta returned after a three-year hiatus and raved about the team’s pitching group helping him regain his pre-Philadelphia form and mechanics.
Zach Davies and Trevor Williams both fly under the radar but they had efficient and strong spring trainings in their first camp with the Cubs resources.
Williams was working to add a slider to his mix in Arizona but the process wasn’t playing out quite how he liked so he opted to focus more on building up for the season than introducing a new pitch. He joked he has a “lifetime no-hitter against imaginary hitters in the lab” but ultimately wasn’t able to carry over the same feel into facing live hitters.
He’ll continue to work on the slider throughout the season but felt it was time to back off in spring training and relayed that to the Cubs pitching group.
“We’ve had good communication back and forth of, ‘this is what we see. How do you feel? What do you feel?'” Williams said. “It usually coincides with one another where feel is always priority. You say this slider looks great on the numbers but if it doesn’t feel good out of the hand and you can’t trust it, then don’t throw it.
“We’ve had a really good line of communication from the beginning and it’s been a pleasure to work with Tommy and those guys.”
Brandon Workman just wrapped up his first spring with the Cubs and was blown away by all the resources available for pitchers in this organization.
“The amount of information here — I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “From the pitching lab and going over different pitch shapes, pitch releases, all that sort of thing. It’s been really nice. I came in with some good feelings, but being able to see data to back up what I’m feeling has been reassuring.”
Over the past few years, the Cubs have thrived on unearthing diamonds in the rough. The Opening Day bullpen is filled with pitchers who were cast aside by other organizations before coming to the Cubs and turning their careers around.
“That’s been one of the real strengths of our organization over the last nine years,” Jed Hoyer said. “Obviously some of the names and faces have changed. …They’ve been fantastic. They really look at every guy that comes in, how do we make this guy his absolute best self and they do a really incredible job of seeing what about a pitcher can make him great, can make him effective. And they really take incredible ownership of bringing that out of every pitcher.
“It gives me a lot of confidence. I know it gave Theo [Epstein] a lot of confidence that we can bring guys in and we’re not gonna bat 1.000 with it, but for the most part, we’re gonna get the most out of the guys that we bring in to pitch.
“A lot has been made of our struggles to develop pitching in the minor leagues and that is accurate. It is true — we have struggled in that regard. It’s sort of undeniable that we have been able to be really effective pitching in the big leagues. That is largely due to those guys I’ve mentioned and their ability to figure out what about a pitcher can be effective, what can make him great and pulling it out of them. They’ve done a fantastic job. I can’t say enough about those guys.”
The Cubs built their 2021 pitching staff around the confidence that this run prevention group can continue that same level of success. If the team is going to win a second straight division, they’re going to need to lean heavily on the pitching infrastructure.