Alec Mills had been putting together quite a spring training, going pitch-for-pitch with presumptive fifth starter Tyler Chatwood and putting himself in position to be an integral member of the Opening Day staff. He posted a 0.84 ERA with eight strikeouts and three walks over three starts and two relief appearances, the last of which was a hitless inning on March 11. And that’s when the sports world ground to a halt.
The NBA had already suspended its season by the time Mills took the mound in relief of Yu Darvish, and every other major American league had done the same within 24 hours. As a result, Cubs Insider‘s scheduled interview with the bespectacled righty was understandably postponed. But after a week that has felt like at least three months, Mills was situated back with his family in Tennessee and setting his schedule around his young son’s naps rather than pitching assignments.
“We left [Arizona] Tuesday morning, I think,” Mills recounted, openly questioning his own grasp of time. “I’m not sure. Anyways, it’s all been a blur. I was gonna stay there just because it was a good setup for me to throw and work out and stuff.
“But with everything that’s happening I thought it was a better idea to head home just in case a full shutdown happened in Arizona. I’d rather be stuck in my house for two weeks than a hotel.”
The trade-off for the peace of mind that comes from being around loved ones is having to fend for yourself when it comes to playing the game you love. Mills said that he’s been trying to maintain his routine as best he can, a task made easier have having some other professional ballplayers in the area, but that the fitness aspect is a little more difficult because he’s trying to avoid gyms at the moment.
Keeping that right arm active is really the most important thing right now when it comes to getting back in action, whenever that may be. And it’s not as though MLB is just jumping right into the regular season once things start returning to normal, so he’s got time to rebuild that competitive edge.
“I think we’ll manage, and they’ve told us we’ll have some sort of spring training build-up time again, so shouldn’t be too much of a surprise,” Mills said. “Although I plan on staying in pretty much the same shape arm-wise.
“You’re never going to be able to replicate any sort of game environment. Bullpens are good, obviously, but there’s nothing like pitching in a game. And I think it’s just a matter of trying to stay in shape [since] that two, three, four week period — whatever we get — should be enough to get me back into game intensity, game shape, and be ready to go.”
One small advantage of this unexpected second offseason is that it gives Mills a chance to shape the new two-seamer ($) he’d been tinkering with in Mesa. He told Sahadev Sharma he was trying out a new grip to generate more run, a different kind of movement on the pitch, the but the pitch isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet.
“I really hadn’t brought it into the lab yet, kinda just messing with it throwing,” Mills told CI of the two-seam. “I really just wanted to get through spring being as successful as I could, this being a big spring for me trying to make the team and everything. I never got to take it into the lab, but it’s one of those things I can continue to work on and hopefully make it better when the time comes.”
Whatever happens with the fastball variation, it’ll set off a curveball that Mills rolls up to the plate at around 68 mph, slower than anyone else in the game. More than just a gimmick, he developed the new version of his bender last year with the help of Iowa pitching coach Rod Nichols in order to differentiate the curve from his other breaking ball.
“Coming up, my curveball and slider had always been similar pitches — both velocity and movement — and I was having trouble making them two distinct pitches<‘ Mills explained. “So it was one of those things where I started messing with it with the pitching coach down at Triple-A, slowing the curveball down and varying the grip.
“I had a little bit of success in the bullpen, saw some differences. And it was one of those things where it was like, ‘Well, you know what? Let’s throw it in a game and see what happens.’ And it had some success and then I’ve been gradually able to slow it down more and more.”
It’s not perfect by any means, but being able to uncork that slow hook consistently makes Mills’ low-90’s fastball play up that much more. The added measure of deception makes him more dangerous against hitters on both sides of the plate and enables him to get through a lineup more than once if need be.
“I think it’s still a work in progress, but I’ve been pleased with the results and it’s definitely made those two distinctly different pitches, which was always the goal,” Mills said with pride. “So now I think I can truly call myself a four-pitch pitcher, which is big for me in my success and being able to do this for a long time.”
That success is really interesting, particularly since he’s actually had more of it with the Chicago Cubs than he has with the Iowa Cubs. To wit, his 21% strikeout rate at the Triple-A level jumps to nearly 30% (10.83 K/9) over 57 MLB innings. His swinging-strike rate has likewise increased, proving that it’s not all a fluke. PECOTA thinks Mills can be better than Cole Hamels in 2020 and Baseball Savant compared him to Aaron Nola, Dylan Cease, Hyun-Jin Ryu in terms of value.
But just because the stats aren’t lying doesn’t mean they’re easy to believe. I mean, how does a guy who barely throws 90 mph and doesn’t really have traditionally filthy stuff actually get better when he pitches at the highest level? Maybe it’s the closed landing or working shorter stints as a swingman. Or perhaps it’s having even better reporting at the top level.
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” Mills said. “One thing the Cubs do well is the scouting department — as far as attacking hitters’ weaknesses or maybe just things that they’re not as good at — is very, very advanced and helped me a lot when I got up. I started really sitting down with [Mike] Borzello and Tommy [Hottovy] and Brad Mills, I was able to really dive into hitters and really start to exploit weaknesses with certain pitches.”
As much of a testament as that is to the Cubs’ cerebral approach to pitching, it’s even more of an indication of Mills’ ability to synthesize the information he’s given. That’s a product of his quietude on the mound, something David Ross referred to as having a “low heartbeat,” which has led some to liken him to Kyle Hendricks. That chill doesn’t just help Mills when he’s pitching, it’s evident in the way he handles just about everything.
“As far as I knew, the competition for everything was still on,” Mills said. “We had a couple weeks left in spring and I came out of the bullpen that time, the last game we played, and it was one of those things where they were just like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna see what happens, we’ll see how you respond.’
“And I had come out of the bullpen before, but I think it was one of those things where it was something that I could show them I could do that and have that role and do it well. So it’s just another thing, another notch in the belt that I can say I can do and help the team. I’m just gonna roll with the punches, preference or not.
“I just want to pitch, it’s something that I’ve wanted to do my whole life. So I just want to pitch: bullpen, starter, whatever it is. I just want to do what I can to help the team win.”
That might seem like a hackneyed trope coming from anyone else, but it feels a lot more earnest when it’s coming from someone who grew up a Cubs fan. Mills’ parents are from the Chicago area and he went to Wrigley a lot as a kid, to watch Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Sammy Sosa, so coming up and pitching for the Cubs was a surreal experience. Even so, it took a while for Mills to realize that he could really make a living as a pitcher.
After debuting in 2016 with the Royals and getting a little run at major league camp, along with some time in Chicago late in the 2018 season, it wasn’t until last year that the understanding really clicked. The confidence he gained in 2019, when he posted a 2.75 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 11 walks over 36 innings, sent him in into the winter with the firm belief that he could make it in the big leagues.
He’s now a lock to make the 26-man roster, but don’t expect his burgeoning confidence to boil over into cockiness. Not even when he flips one of those curves to the plate and has an opposing hitter swinging so awkwardly he injures himself. Those of us watching at home might be laughing, but Mills isn’t about to let that stoic facade betray even the slightest trace of enjoyment.
“As far as smiling or laughing, that’s something that I’ll probably never do because the minute I do that, I’ll throw a fastball and it gets hit off the wall or 40 rows deep,” Mills reasoned. “It’s one of those things where baseball has a very funny way of making karma come true very quickly.”
Now if baseball could just make our dreams of its return come true very quickly, we might all feel much better about the current situation.
If you’re interested in the full interview, which lost some fidelity in the recording, you can do so via my little-used podcast, Deep Like Leviathan. And if you’re interested in following Mills, check him out on Instagram.