The Rundown: A Discussion on Cubs’ Lower Velocity, Lackey and Bosio Make PED ‘Implications’

Hey, have you heard that Cubs pitchers are throwing with a tad less velocity than last year? I know, right, totally new observation. Or not, since it’s been a pretty common topic here in the first couple weeks of the season. Though it’s just under one and a half miles per hour lower, the Cubs’ velocity numbers (90.7 mph as a staff) are at odds with what appears to be a league-wide uptick. And when you consider the change in the way velo is measured, the questions get louder and the answers grow more varied.

One interesting rabbit trail I wanted to follow here is the idea that perhaps they’ve eased off the gas pedal with the idea that they can be more efficient and maintain reserves for October. Viewed in the vacuum of on-paper hypotheticals, this actually sounds really cool. It’s another of those market inefficiencies we like to crow about Theo Epstein’s brain trust exploiting. Thing is, the logic is all kinds of flawed when held up to the light.

The first problem I see with this idea is that it could mean all sorts of trouble when it comes to actually having to punch the gas later in the season, or in a particularly difficult inning, for that matter. If you’ve retrained your body and mind to ease back, it could be nigh impossible to flip the switch later. While we’re talking about finely-tuned athletes, this isn’t like going from cruise control to the passing lane.

That brings us to the matter of mechanics, which are central to the conversation. Though it’s really an adjunct point to the one I just made, tinkering with a pitcher’s mechanics just for the hell of it could be risky. For someone like Jake Arrieta, who was obviously overthrowing and allowing his mechanics to get sloppy, taking it easy might force him into a cleaner, more repeatable release point. But to suggest that the whole staff back off could be both counterproductive and dangerous.

In Arrieta’s case, throwing with less effort would be a response to noticeable issues last season. But what about the other guys in the rotation, namely someone like Kyle Hendricks? Has anyone ever accused him of overthrowing? Though it’s obvious he doesn’t rely on elite velocity, Hendricks can’t get by on a fastball that sits mid-80’s with a curve at 71 and a change that doesn’t break 80 mph. He doesn’t need to throw hard, but extreme soft-tossing clearly isn’t the way to go.

Then you’ve got your grizzled veterans like John Lackey and Jon Lester. You think either of those guys — or any pitcher, for that matter — would really sacrifice even the slightest competitive edge in April just to (maybe) get it back later? Would a guy in a contract year offer to do that? Hell to the no.

This all pushes us into the big-picture theory, which is that the Cubs might be intentionally blunting (I’m a day late on that being a really timely reference) their competitiveness now in order to ensure that it’s at its sharpest as the season wears on. To put it in very simplified terms, this would really be the abridged version of The Plan put in place a few years ago to turn the Cubs into contenders. Sacrifice a little now for a lot later.

There are manifold issues with that concept, though, not the least of which is that the shorter your timeline for completion, the more problems can derail your efforts. Again, somewhat repetitive in terms of my point about being able to turn it on when you need it. Besides, wouldn’t the Cubs want to be more competitive early, to do their best to run and hide from the division in order to work out any flaws or kinks later on with less pressure?

Of course they would, which is why I don’t buy the idea that they’re instructing pitchers to dial it back. That just doesn’t make sense from either a strategic angle or as something the pitchers would buy into. And before I forget to mention it, none of this holds water when it comes to injury prevention, either. Potentially altering someone’s mechanics for the express purpose of asking him to throw with less velocity is probably suboptimal when it comes to health.

Now, that said, I absolutely believe that the Cubs are much more focused on the process than the product and that they’re not concerning themselves with specific velocity numbers or with the early win-loss mark. As long as they stick with what they know works, they’ll be where they want to be by the end of the year. So while I don’t buy that they’re directly instructing pitchers to throw slower, I absolutely believe they’re not telling anyone to try to throw harder.

It may sound like the same thing, but there’s a difference between taking it easy and holding back. This is something to keep an eye on over the next few weeks and months, but I expect to see the velo numbers creep up and normalize here before too long.

Lackey and Bosio on Eric Thames and PED use

Once upon a time, we marveled at the chiseled physiques of Sammy Sosa and Brady Anderson, among other speedsters-turned-sluggers whose power numbers set records. Nomar Garciaparra was all buff when he posed for the cover of SI back in March of 2001. And I seem to recall Bret Boone being featured in an SI for Kids insert touting the workout regimen that turned the second baseman into a power threat.

That was all in the midst of the ballyhooed Steroid Era, the spoils of which Bud Selig embraced when no one was looking and then shoved away as soon as the lights came on. Mind you, I’m not outright accusing any of the players above of juicing. I’m merely lumping them together based on anecdotal evidence and/or rumors and allegations. That’s how this whole thing works.

When Jake Arrieta was posting historic numbers in 2015, bloviating blowhard Stephen A. Smith questioned the ace’s legitimacy. And though most were offered jokingly, there were more than a few speculative comments that the Cubs had hired Manny Ramirez in order to help their burgeoning talent pool learn how to use PEDs. Par for the course in a world that sees Pizzagate become a thing.

My point here is that steroid rumors will persist in baseball as long as there are guys doing things they haven’t done in the past. The most recent subject of those whispers is the Brewers’ Eric Thames, who has been pounding away this season after a journeyman career that recently saw him lighting up the Korean Baseball Organization before returning stateside. When you go from hitting 21 homers in 684 plate appearances to seven in 58, people are going to wonder.

One of those people is John Lackey, who served up a tater for the very stout-looking Thames to mash the other other day at Wrigley. The homer extended the sudden slugger’s streak to five straight games with a home run. As you might imagine, Lackey wasn’t necessarily pleased.

Bill Baer of NBC sports wrote the following about the pitcher’s reaction in the postgame presser:

In his post-game press conference, Lackey said (via the Chicago Tribune) that Thames’ home run was “kinda one of those things that makes you scratch your head.” Lackey seemingly very intentionally winked at the reporter who asked him the question.

Baer went on to cite Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio from an appearance on Mully and Hanley, the transcript of which actually came via Yahoo’s Chris Cwik:

Well, the bottom line is [Thames] has hit the ball and we gotta figure out a way to get around [it]. All that other stuff, I’ll let other people worry about. But he’s doing stuff that I haven’t seen done for a long time.

You start thinking about Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez when he went to the Dodgers, Barry Bonds … You’re talking about some of the greatest players to ever play this game. So, yeah, it’s probably a ‘head-scratcher’ because nobody knows who this guy is. And when he was here before, his body has changed. But, like I said, I’ll leave that to everyone else and we’re just gonna try to worry about how to pitch him better and get him out.

So, yeah, I guess I can see how you could interpret Boz’s statement as an implication if you’re really trying hard to see his statement as an implication. He’s not picking out sluggers like Ramirez and Bonds because of their own checkered pasts, but because they were able to do things like homer in five straight games. And Griffey is continually upheld as the paragon of clean players in a dirty era.

But, Evan, he said Thames’ body has changed. Okay, sure. No show me a guy who doesn’t look different now than he did five years ago. And I don’t mean Len Kasper, whose perpetually youthful appearance is confounding. I’m talking about someone who has gone through his physical prime as a professional athlete with the means and desire to earn a boatload of money based on how his body performs. Of course Thames looks different now.

I don’t get implication in Bosio’s words at all. What I get it a pitching coach saying he doesn’t care about “all that other stuff” and that the only thing that matters is trying to find a way to get the guy out. Boz is responding to a question about Lackey’s comments, so any any allusion to PED usage there was provided via external context and not from the actual content of his response.

And even if these guys are accusing a rival of juicing, is that really a surprise? I mean, we just saw Starling Marte popped for nandrolone, and he’s a division rival who’s been around and didn’t just leap from the black hole of obscurity. Man, I’m glad I shined a light on this non-issue.

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