Let me just go ahead and inform you right off the top that there’s nothing particularly novel or illuminating about this post. Rather, it’s a slightly updated aggregation of information you may have been privy to since early in the original offseason. With baseball at a standstill and little else of note taking place, however, I felt compelled to put this together after a talk with Cubs bullpen hopeful Dakota Mekkes.
The big righty had told Cubs Insider back in October that he really wanted to work on what had to that point been a “sweepy” slider. Rather than using it as a get-me-over pitch, Mekkes was hoping to have something that could induce more whiffs.
“Another thing I want to try to add is a tighter slider, because my slider right now is like 76-78 and it’s not really a strikeout [pitch]. It’s more of a fool you, get ahead when it’s 0-0, first pitch maybe slip a slider strike one. I have really good feel for that pitch, so I want to keep that in my repertoire. But I’m trying work on more of a put-away pitch, whether that be my changeup or a tighter slider.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Mekkes’ fastball was already touching 96 mph early in camp, something he attributed to losing 22 pounds in the offseason. He confirmed that suspicion that he may be able to throw a couple ticks harder, which is really wild considering how his big frame and low three-quarters delivery create deception that makes his heat play up higher anyway. But the real key will be dialing in the breaking ball and maintaining a wee bit more control.
“It’s definitely something I need to keep locked in, but it’s kinda turned more into a curveball this year that I was throwing in spring,” Mekkes shared with The Rant. “I thought it was a lot sharper. (Tommy) Hottovy and (David) Rossy said they liked it a lot more than what they had seen in the past.
“So I just worked more on the hand placement and the release point on that one and I think it was a lot better this spring than what it has been really my entire career. That’s the biggest thing during this quarantine I’m trying to keep in place, is the grip and the release point and all that.”
Mekkes went on to explain the process of trying out new slider grips, saying that he’d throw five or so pitches one way and then alter his finger placement and throw five more. He even experimented with the knuckle-curve that seems to be all the rage in the organization, but he couldn’t establish any level of comfort with it. He’s also got a cutter that isn’t quite ready for competition, so that’s something to look for in the future.
Among other things, it’s the inability to experiment in a competitive setting that really hurts pitchers trying to take the next step in their development or just tweak a familiar offering. Throwing a cutter to Zack Short or Ian Happ while playing catch is nowhere near the same thing as bearing down against throwing it in a full count to get the third out in the 7th inning. And while the pitch lab can offer unique insight, the best indicator of a pitch’s success is how hitters react to it.
That’s how José Quintana was testing his new changeup, which he’d moved from a two-seam to a four-seam grip to better mimic his fastball. Little things like that can make a big difference, especially when hitters are trying to pick up particular spin or are anticipating certain movement from pitches. Getting just a little more drop, run, or tumble could be the difference between a foul ball and a whiff.
“I think the four-seam grip is going to help me more get swings than a two-seamer grip,” Quintana told reporters in February. “But, I think it’s the best change to throw that pitch with confidence. That’s all I need. That’s what I’ve been doing. I want to show you in the games.”
Similarly, Adbert Alzolay had been working to perfect his own new changeup grip that better mimicked his four-seamer. Thrown from deeper in his hand and with his fingertips beyond the seams, the pitch should spin in the same direction as its harder counterpart but with fewer RPMs and more downward movement than his fastball.
“I’ve been working really, really hard on it because I know that’s a game-changing pitch right there,” Alzolay said at Cubs Convention. “My changeup has the same rotation like…it looks like my fastball, just drops at the end.”
“Before, I was going two-seamer (grip),” Alzolay explained. “But now I moved it, so I’m trying to keep this finger right here [indicating index finger placement] and these two fingers right on top of the seams right here [middle and ring fingers in more of a four-seam grip]. So when I release the ball, it has the same rotation as my fastball.”
Beyond the more obvious impact of baseball’s ongoing shutdown and the broader cessation of life as we knew it, the little nuances of pitchers’ respective preparations have been thrown for a loop. While being forced to find new and different ways to stay in shape may actually be beneficial in some ways, it’s virtually impossible to maintain or improve upon something like a grip change outside of a competitive setting.
Then again, perhaps the lack of pressure and the absence of external distractions will allow some of these guys to really drill down into the minutia and implement changes to an extent they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Here’s to hoping we find out one way or the other at some point yet this summer.