Heading into Tuesday night’s debut, Brendon Little’s pro career had been neither substantial nor exemplary. The 21-year-old lefty only pitched 16 innings in 2017 for short-season Eugene after being taken by the Cubs in the first round of that year’s draft. Those innings were not kind.
He struggled with his fastball and his velocity was down. His ERA was over 9 and he only struck 12 as opponents hit .300 against him. It was, as I say to my students, “73 kinds of bad.”
By all accounts, Little had a good spring in Mesa as he prepared for his first full season of pro ball. Just a week ago, he pitched five innings and did well, allowing a single run and striking out six.
I was was not expecting to see anything from Little’s South Bend debut other than his curve. Considering he did not play D1 baseball, opting instead for the junior college route, the Midwest League is a pretty big jump in talent. I had thus tempered my expectations, favoring the long term with his development rather than immediate results; despite his lofty draft status, there’s no need to place unreasonable expectations on him just yet.
Then again, I hoped to see him display good command of a his fastball, which should have been in the low 90’s. If he could get through the fifth, maybe getting in 60-80 pitches for the night and striking out four or five while giving up two or three runs, that would have been fine.. But those were just wishes and maybe unreasonable ones at that.
Little got the first two guys out on five pitches and looked good doing it. He was throwing nothing but fastballs around 92 mph, which was 3-4 ticks better than at Eugene last year.
Then Little fell behind on the third batter, going to a full count before the batter laced a double down the left field line. After a passed ball, Little walked Bowling Green’s cleanup hitter Brendan McKay.
At this point, I began to wonder why Little was nibbling on every pitch instead of attacking the zone. He looked to be in command with the fifth batter when strike three was dropped by catcher Miguel Amaya, who then was unable to make a throw to first for the third out.
Little was closing in on 30 pitches, which is usually the per-inning limit for Cubs in South Bend. It looked like he was going to get out of the inning on a liner to center, but the ball kept carrying until it eventually turned into a two-run double. Little faced one more batter, who he promptly walked.
After 35 pitches and only two-thirds of an inning, Little was done. He struck out only one, walked two, and gave up two hits for a final tally of four earned runs.
A line I have been saying a lot lately is “I have seen this movie before.” After watching Little go at it, I said it again because this looked somewhat similar to how he pitched at Eugene last year. But in some ways, it wasn’t. The velocity was up this year, he threw a couple of changeups that looked good and the curve looked nice, but his fastball was all over the place. He has to get that straightened out. He has to attack the zone rather than pitch on the edges.
Even with his poor performance, his teammates came back from an 8-0 deficit to win 13-11 behind four home runs. It was an amazing game.
At 21 years old, Little’s still got time. If he figures it out, he could be special. It’s a process, and no one said it would be easy, even for a first round pick.