Twelve Cubs pitchers currently boast a 0.00 ERA in spring training, though only five of them have thrown more than a single inning. Just two more are under a 2.25 ERA, and both made starts Saturday across the Cubs’ split-squad twin bill. Kyle Hendricks had his mark pushed up to 1.00 on the strength of a leadoff homer by Francisco Lindor in one game, while Alec Mills ended the day at 0.93 after surrendering his first run of the spring in Vegas.
With all respect to The Professor, I was far more interested in how the bespectacled Mills graded on the curve. As Jordan Bastian wrote for MLB.com, Reds first baseman Josh VanMeter was not very pleased with the results of his test. The left-handed hitter whiffed helplessly at a pitch that bent time as surely as it did physics, then went to the ground wincing from pain in both body and pride.
Alec Mills had his off-speed working today. pic.twitter.com/6cjzDgjzF3
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 8, 2020
VanMeter returned to the box after consulting a trainer, but he might have been better served by a sports psychologist because he had more or less given up on the at-bat at that point. The registrar’s office isn’t open over the weekend, but you can bet he’ll be there first thing Monday to see if he can audit Mills’ course.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone came away from a battle with Mills wondering how a dude who barely touches 90 with his fastball got over on them. But he sets it off with a changeup that comes in nearly 10 ticks slower and a curveball that absolutely creeps to the plate yet another 13 mph below that. Anyone who can change speeds and eye level to that degree is going to get his share of outs.
Maddon came up to me one day and said, "This guy is better than you think."
— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) March 7, 2020
That curve is really something to behold, and it’s all due to a grip change he made last season on the advice of I-Cubs pitching coach Rod Nichols. As Bastian described, Mills is “keeping his index finger off the ball” like Adam Wainwright in order to separate the curve from his slider in terms of velocity. Those pitches had a disparity of about 5-6 mph in 2018, but now are an incredible 10-11 mph apart.
But it’s not just a matter of being slower than his change or his fastball. Mills’ curve averaged only 67.6 mph last season, slower than any other pitcher in MLB (min. 50 curveballs thrown), thus making it difficult for hitters to adequately prepare for. Will it be enough to convince the Cubs that he’s the best first for the fifth spot in the rotation?
“All I can do is let them make that decision, obviously,” Mills told Bastian. “I’m just here to compete. And I think it’s been awesome.”