Minimal Velocity Increases Could Partially Explain Cubs’ Struggle to Develop Homegrown Pitching

Much has been made of the Cubs’ lack of homegrown pitching options, a story that really germinated in 2016 grew too large to ignore in 2018. By my count, the Cubs got a mere 26 innings from pitchers they’d drafted and developed (Dillon Maples, Duane Underwood Jr., Rob Zastryzny, and James Norwood) last season. That brings them to a total of just 56 innings, a decidedly unacceptable number ($), since the Theo Epstein regime took hold.

Looking toward next season, there does appear to be a little help on the way in the form of Justin Steele, Dakota Mekkes, and Thomas Hatch. Even so, Steele is the only one who currently projects as a starter. So what is the root cause for this? There are actually many, but the one I want to delve into today is the lack of velocity gains by many Cubs pitching prospects.

When FanGraphs produced their list of top Cubs prospects this past month, they also added a feature that displayed pitching prospects’ average velocities. Having covered the Cubs system for a few years, I couldn’t remember very many pitchers with consistent mid-90’s velocity on their fastball.

Velocity in general is on the rise, due in no small part to a decrease in the number of innings starters pitch, which has in turn resulted in more innings going to the bullpen. Organizations crave velocity, and one of the best examples is the Houston Astros. Their minor league teams are consistently near the top in strikeouts and their major league pitching led the league with a 28.5 percent K-rate. Their starters also boasted the highest average fastball velocity in baseball.

But back to the Cubs and their ability to develop velocity, or rather, their inability. Let’s take a look at a sample of pitcher drafted in the first five rounds since 2012 and how their 2018 velocity numbers* compared to what they were when drafted. For the sake of reference, 92.6 mph was the average fastball velocity in MLB this past season.

Player Year Drafted Velocity at Draft (MPH) 2018 Velocity (MPH)
Pierce Johnson 2012, 1st round comp 90-94 92.3
Paul Blackburn 2012, 1st round comp 89-92 90
Duane Underwood Jr. 2012, 2nd round 91-94, tops 98 91-94
Rob Zastryzny 2013, 2nd round 86-95 88.9
Carson Sands 2014, 4th round 90-92 89-91
Justin Steele 2014, 5th round 88-92 89-93, tops 95
Bryan Hudson 2015, 3rd round 86-90 89-91
Tom Hatch 2016, 3rd round 91-94 92-93, tops 95
Tyson Miller 2016, 4th round 90-92 90-93, tops 95
Brendon Little 2017, 1st round 91-95, tops 97 89-91, tops 93
Alex Lange 2017, 1st round comp 91-95, tops 96 89-90, tops 92
Cory Abbott 2017, 2nd round 90-92 90-92, tops 93
Keegan Thompson 2017, 3rd round 88-90, after TJ 89-92, tops 94

A majority of the 13 pitchers listed above came out of college, so we can assume this group is somewhat more developed than if we just reviewed prep arms. But even with a fairly advanced college pitcher, you’d expect some velocity gains from full-time exposure to a professional player development system. But Bryan Hudson is the only one to add a few more ticks, with most showing little or no improvement.

What is perhaps most distressing part is that the two most recent first round picks on the list, Brendon Little and Alex Lange, have seen their velocity decline over the past year. Rather than looking like mid-rotation starters, both are looking more like bullpen arms after a down season.

Technology and specialize training are becoming more prevalent than ever in player development, whether it’s high-speed cameras capturing video to weighted-ball practices intended to increase velocity. The Cubs are implementing these techniques and using other data and technology to improve their pitchers, but the results haven’t yet reached the MLB level to any significant degree.

To be clear, this isn’t to say pitchers need to throw harder to achieve success. Having below-average velocity doesn’t automatically spell doom — see Hendricks, Kyle — but it does reduce a pitcher’s margin for error and makes success that much harder. Which is why I believe the overall lack of velocity improvement, particularly among their top prospects, is one of the reasons the Cubs have struggled to develop pitchers over the last six years.

With that in mind, I’ll be very interested to see where the velo numbers are for Lange and Little, among others, when the new season opens.


*Draft velocities found on reports as well as various twitter sources, 2018 velocities found via FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Twitter.

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