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."

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.