Cubs

Why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with velocity dips from Jake Arrieta, starters

Why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with velocity dips from Jake Arrieta, starters

Step off the ledge, baseball fans.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with Jake Arrieta's low velocity early in 2017.

In fact, it actually may be by design, at least in part.

Across the board, each one of the five Cubs starters has seen a dip in velocity the first two times through the rotation this season.

Arrieta has seen the biggest drop, going from an average of 93.6 mph on his fastballs in 2016 to just 91.4 mph entering Saturday's start.

[RELATED — Jake Arrieta fires back at questions about his velocity]

Maddon said before Saturday's game he wouldn't be monitoring the radar gun at the bottom of the giant video board in left field throughout Arrieta's outing.

"Honestly not at all," Maddon said. "I kind of like where he's at quite frankly because delivery has been better and his strike-throwing has been better. I would much prefer 91, 92 and an occasional 93 located than a 94, 95 out of the shotgun. It's a much better way to go."

Arrieta sat at 91-92 mph for most of Saturday's outing, but actually dropped to 88 and 89 mph in his last two innings of work. He finished with five strikeouts in 5.2 innings and gave up three runs and two homers, though the 24mph wind blowing straight out helped contribute to the longball.

"I thought he ran out of gas there at the end," Maddon said. "The velocity wasn't as high, but the location was good and the movement on the fastball was very good, the breaking ball was good. I thought he pitched well."

Led by pitching coach Chris Bosio, the Cubs have also devised a pitching plan for every pitcher  namely their starters —​ designed to keep them strong and fresh down the stretch.

That's why the starting pitchers made their debut so late into spring training and the Cubs were extra cautious after last year's World Series run that saw guys like Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks pitching into late October/early November for the first time in their career. Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) aren't getting any younger, either.

The Cubs can also afford to play things safe in April with an American League-style lineup, the game's best defense and a deep bullpen packed with current or former closers helping supplement the work of the rotation.

[MORE - Kyle Hendricks shrugs off notion of rust in second Cubs start]

Plus, Maddon and Co. already have eyes set on another long postseason run and are working toward that already, even in mid-April.

The Cubs woke up Saturday morning with the lowest ERA in baseball (2.47). Yes that's a small sample size, but something's clearly working even with a dip in velocity.

"Jake was throwing harder in spring training. So was Kyle," Maddon said. "These guys are going to get back to that number, but I want them to be at that number locating the ball like they can with that kind of movement. That's what they do.

"Jake's been really good. It's been fun watching from the side. Even though the number is not as hot [on the radar gun] so far, the hitters' reaction has not been good. I'd much prefer bad hitter reaction.

"Velocity is a beautiful thing, but my goodness, these guys, if it's not thrown in the proper spot, these hitters will get it."

Last season, Arrieta struggled to get his mechanics right after ending 2015 with the most superhuman run (0.75 ERA in 15 second-half starts) the game had ever seen en route to the National League Cy Young Award.

Arrieta was still the toughest pitcher to hit in the league last year, but walks became an issue and Maddon routinely pointed to a lack of fastball command as the main cuplrit.

As Arrieta saunters his way toward free agency and the first  and possibly only  megadeal of his career, his fastball command and cross-body delivery have fallen in line in the early going.

"Most of the time, I'm not concerned about physical mechanics going awry, but last year with him, I was," Maddon said. "I thought he was off mechanically the way he was starting, even with his posture with how he started.

"That was leading to spinning off the ball, turning off the ball, being awkward. More than trying to back off [velocity] at any point, I never really considered that. So right now, his posture and how he's starting is really good. He's repeating his delivery.

"That's what I love, man. He's on balance with his finish and the ball is going where he wants it to go with killer movement. The velocity is coming back  you watch. That's not the issue. I much prefer he continues to dot the edges with movement as opposed to try to throw the ball harder."

Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

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USA TODAY

Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

Mark Prior's big-league playing career unfortunately fizzled out due to recurring injury woes, but he's making a name for himself in the coaching realm.

With Dodgers current pitching coach Rick Honeycutt transitioning into a new role, Prior is expected to takeover the position starting next season.

Cubs fans know the story of Prior's playing career all too well. The Cubs drafted him second overall in the 2001, with Prior making his MLB debut just a season later. He went on to dominate in 2003, posting an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 30 starts, a season in which he made the All-Star Game and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

However, Prior's season ended on a sour note, as he was on the mound during the Steve Bartman incident in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Prior exited the game with a 3-1 lead, but the Cubs surrendered seven more runs that inning, eventually falling to the Marlins 8-3 before losing Game 7 the next day. 

Prior struggled to stay healthy after 2003, eventually retiring in 2013 after multiple comeback attempts. While many blame his injury-riddled career on former Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Prior does not. 

While we can only wonder what could've been with Prior to the pitcher, it's good to see him still making an impact in baseball in some fashion.

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The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."