Don’t Sleep on Alec Mills as a Legit Bullpen Option for Cubs

With the recent signing of Brad Brach, the Cubs are nearing completion on construction of a bullpen that finished with a middle-of-the-pack performance last season. Outside of additional bargain depth moves, they will likely look within the organization to help fill some innings this season. As Evan Altman mentioned recently, Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, James Norwood, and Alec Mills should all see some time in the Chicago bullpen in 2019.

Of that foursome, Mills was most active with the Cubs last summer, pitching 18 innings while striking out an impressive 23 batters. Mills had been seen as a potential middle-relief option or long reliever even coming up through the Royals system, and a trade to the Cubs didn’t change that outlook. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s exactly what the Cubs need right now: A pitcher on a league-minimum contract that can provide solid production.

It starts with the kind of four-pitch mix you’d normally expect from a starter. Mills has a fastball that he can also manipulate into a tailing sinker; a sweeping slider (a lot more horizontal movement than vertical movement); a get-me-over curveball for a called strike early in counts’ and a changeup that generated an impressive 26.32 percent swing-and-miss last season. So I guess that’s really five pitches depending on how you categorize them.

The fastball is perhaps his most important pitch, as everything plays off of it. Settling in at a below-average 90.8 mph, his command of it is vital. There were times he’d miss the zone completely, which didn’t fool hitters at all. But a bigger issue was leaving the fastball in very hittable locations, like this example to Todd Frazier:

When located correctly, however, it can generate whiffs:

And when Mills really has things working, he can use the fastball to set up his changeup. Take a look at this sequence here:

The batter was out in front and way above his changeup, which was located perfectly following the sinker. Both pitches have similar tailing movement, with the changeup coming in 10 mph slower and dropping like a lead weight when it reaches the plate. When it’s on, this two-pitch mix can be devastating.

Mills’ changeup has long been his best pitch, and what’s most impressive is his ability to throw it to both batters from either side. Traditional logic holds that a righty-on-righty changeup is difficult to execute effectively, but Mills had a 28.13 percent whiff rate on the 32 changeups (SSS and all that) he threw to righties. And when located inside, it can lead to a weak contact even when it doesn’t miss bats.

Hitters tend to see horizontal movement better than vertical movement, but Mills shows he has feel for his slider. He can front door it for strikes early in counts:

And his sharper sliders show that typical bite in the bottom of the zone:

At only 79 mph, it’s not a power pitch by any stretch, but Mills has shown his slider can be at least average in the majors. As long as he doesn’t leave it hanging up in the zone, it should be his best breaking pitch moving forward.

His curveball is a good change of pace, but it’s more loopy and lacks the sharp depth we see in many of the best benders. But as we see below, he can use it early to catch hitters off-guard.

Overall, Mills mixes all of his pitches well and has shown that his repertoire can play at the highest level. The cross-fire action in his delivery may hinder his fastball command, but his whole profile can play up a bit thanks to that added deception and command of his offspeed pitches. Mills won’t blow you away with electric stuff, but he can get outs whether it’s as a spot starter or in a more abbreviated capacity.

While several other prospects have sexier profiles and are more exciting as far as fans are concerned, Mills should be given the chance to show he can contribute this upcoming season.

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Teddy Eley

A graduate of Denison University, Teddy has been writing about the Cubs farm system for a few years now. He has been to all of the full season affiliates of the Cubs, and often makes trips to South Bend over the summers. Outside of the minors, his interests include soccer, economics, and ultimate frisbee.

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9 Comments

  1. Great piece! Mills has as good, or more, chance of succeeding in 2019 as any remaining FA pitcher, except Kimbrel. And maybe Warren, but he can’t seem to pitch except for NYY, and certainly not for the Cubs again.

    1. And Kimbrel has a better chance of being better than Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Duce, Kintzler, Rosario, Chatwood…as well as Chapman and Jansen. But who needs those guys anyway? We have Mills!

      1. But not for six years and $80+ million for a team already past the first competitive balance tax post, facing an uncertain future in launching a proprietary network in an increasingly unplugging age, and with close to even odds on a strike as the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.

        1. Chapman and Jansen both got 5 yr deals when a) they were going into age 29 seasons; and b) the market was ascending in both dollars and duration.

          Kimbrel moves into his age 31 season-so even were this Jan 2017 he could probably only expect 3 yrs (2 yrs less than Chap and Jan, just due to age). He will probably not have a suitor beyond 3/$50–and may hafta settle for 1/$18. And this despite fact that he has been, overall, better than both Jansen and Chapman since they all came up in 2010…he’s been the most transcendent of the transcendent.

          Either way and despite not the slightest murmur of Cub interest, they would be fools to waltz into ‘19 thinking a disabled 34 yr old/hopelessly injury-prone Morrow, a 34 yr old Strop, and a 33 yr old Cishek would be remotely as valuable as Kimbrel.

          Window keeps closing…thx again, Heyward.

  2. I’ve been touting Mills as a legit pen option all off-season. I think he can be a multi-inning guy in the same mold as Hader or Miller (though maybe without the overwhelming stuff). Glad to see he’s getting noticed!

  3. Im ok with Alec Mills as a spot starter or in long relief. He could be used if spotted in proper situations where he could succeed. He is a poor mans version of Kyle Hendricks but needs to get better command of all of his pitches since he throws slower than Hendricks.

    1. I’m with you on the spot starter and long relief. Here’s hoping Mills can just be the next Hendricks – as I love watching the real art of pitching without power.

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