Velocity, command and catcher targets: Keys to a 2022 breakout for Cubs pitching prospect Max Bain
MESA, AZ — Max Bain’s bullpen on March 3 could be characterized by two words: loud and accurate. After a season where he averaged 94 mph on his fastball, he entered the offseason with the goal of adding velocity and the hard work is showing dividends early in camp. In a live session two days prior to his March 3 bullpen, he sat comfortably at 97 mph for an inning of work and in this less-than-100%-intensity bullpen, his average velocity was 92-94 mph with a high of 95 mph.
“Usually you know when you’re going to have a good day,” Bain said with a smile.
Accurate describes Bain’s tendency to fill up the zone, or rather, fill up a box suspended in front of his catcher by threading pieces of white string through two PVC pipes to help pitchers visualize their strike-throwing ability.
Ran into an Old Friend today. The STRINGS! 1st saw in 1975 @Dodgers spring training bullpen. I don’t think I threw 1 strike that 1st day but with its help I was in the Big Leagues in Sept 1976!! pic.twitter.com/ZQPIlRWBhb— Rick Sutcliffe (@Sut_40) February 25, 2022
The visual is comparable to the white outline of the strike zone fans see while watching a game on television.
If Bain carries these two characteristics — added velocity and more strikes — into 2022, the sky’s the limit for the former Northwood League signee.
Bain’s 2021 possessed ups and downs. A 27% strikeout rate in 21 starts with High-A South Bend in a pitcher’s first season of pro ball is nothing to scoff at. But Bain will be the first to tell you he knows he has to improve.
“It doesn’t take a genius to see that I struggled with command last season,” Bain said.
Bain walked 14% of the batters he faced in the first two months of the season. For comparison’s sake, the highest walk rate among MLB starters with at least 100 IP last season was 13%, with the average sitting around 7-8%.
Apart from focusing on command in bullpens, another trick Bain has up his sleeve is the desire to adjust what his catcher presents to him as a target.
Modern thinking has pushed some organizations into making catchers less aggressive, especially in counts with less than two strikes and especially for pitchers who possess good “stuff,” or an exceptional combination of velocity, movement and deception. Instead of a catcher presenting a target on the edge of the zone for a fastball in an 0-0 count, opting for a target near the center of the plate could result in a net-positive effect, more strikes at the expense of a few more balls over the plate.
“I think it’ll allow my average miss to take me to the edges of the zone,” Bain said.
The contrary would be Bain’s average miss taking him outside of the zone, contributing to his problem with walks in 2021. The idea would also help mitigate the challenge posed by having a rotating cast of battery-mates at High-A. Eight catchers caught Bain last season, each of them with a different tendency for framing certain pitches better than others, as every catcher in baseball does. The result was an unintended effect on the pitcher’s confidence with certain pitches.
Beyond his command, however, Bain will still have his mix of plus secondaries: a changeup, slider and curveball.
Bain’s slider accounted for the biggest swing-and-miss in his repertoire last season, sitting 84 mph with a good amount of horizontal movement biting away from right-handed hitters.
His changeup took on new life late in the season after Bain struggled to command the pitch in May and June. He uses an unconventional grip, wedging the ball in between his index and middle finger to help him kill spin and let gravity create drop on the ball. His curveball is another weapon that grades out plus, with velocity over 80 mph and sharp downward movement.
He has the weapons and velocity to succeed. He also has the motivation to make changes and ability to apply the game’s most innovative concepts to his craft. But if you ask Bain for his top-line goal this season, his answer is much simpler:
“Enjoy it more,” he said. “Don’t be so hard on myself.”