One of the coolest stories in the Cubs system this summer has been the acquisition and success of pitcher Dakota Chalmers. A third-round pick of the Athletics 2015, Chalmers was traded to the Twins for Fernando Rodney in 2018 and spent parts of three years in their organization. He spent the summer of 2020 at Minnesota’s alternate site and had been placed on their 40-man roster, but he was released this spring after struggling early on at Double-A.
I remember hoping the Cubs would draft Chalmers with the first-round selection that yielded Ian Happ, then I watched as they passed again in the second round. That’s part of why I was excited when he became available this spring and the Cubs took an opportunity to pick him up despite his recent performance. The talent has always been there, it’s just a matter of coaching it out and controlling it.
The Cubs have been bringing Chalmers along slowly, getting him stretched out as a starter after the Twins moved him to the bullpen. He’s now worked his way up to almost 80 pitches a game and he’s missed a lot of bats despite a misleadingly high 4.45 ERA in his time with the Tennessee Smokies.
Of the 16 runs Chalmers has allowed, 14 came in just two games. He’s struck out 31 in 32.1 innings and opposing hitters are batting just .179 against him. Even better, he’s cut his walk rate nearly in half after spiking up to nearly 24% with the Twins.
I recently had a chance to speak with Chalmers about what he’s changed and how he’s finding more success so far in the Cubs organization.
CI: What are you doing now that is helping you achieve the success you weren’t finding with the Twins?
DC: I would say that month [after being DFA’d] matured me in terms of what doesn’t work. It told me that what I was doing wasn’t working. I was trying to overpower people when the velocity wasn’t there. I was trying to pitch how I used to pitch when I was throwing 97-98 with 92-93 and I was making mistakes, I was walking people because I was overthrowing.
And then when I got to the Cubs, I wanted to stick to my routine and do all the things I’m supposed to, like check all the boxes. Velocity is one of those things that can come and go, so I’m just going to pitch with what I have instead of trying to do more than what I can.
For that, I learned how to invest more time in preparation for my starts, like scouting reports. I am doing that because the hitters have an approach at double-A. At the lower levels scouting reports are kind of random because the hitters haven’t found themselves yet.
Me: “oh snap!“
Umpire: Strike 2
Pitch by Dakota Chalmers pic.twitter.com/Z5H93zcLMO
— Todd ⚾️🐻 (@CubsCentral08) July 18, 2021
The second thing, and this is where the Cubs come in, is in high school I had a curveball and a slider. With the Twins, they wanted me to go curveball/changeup/fastball mix in the zone before I added a fourth pitch. But what the slider does do is it sets up more swing and miss for my curve. The breaking ball is really good and sharp, but in order to land it in the zone, I really have to throw it a little high. I would never get swings if I threw it low. They would see the little hump and just take it automatically.
Now with the slider, I don’t have to throw the curveball for as many strikes. Because I have a slider I can throw it for a strike, it gets them off the curveball and I’m getting chases with it that I wasn’t getting before. So I think just having the two breaking balls and being able to throw one for a strike whenever I want and then one that’s just on paper an elite pitch has kind of helped me to have a better arsenal as a whole.
The Cubs gave me the freedom to mess around with the slider a little bit and now it’s a pitch that I really have confidence in.
CI: Rather than judging pitchers by numbers on a radar gun, I focus on movement and location and the swings that hitters take. You’ve gotten some ugly swings lately, a lot of them on that curveball.
DC: Let’s say a player has an elite pitch on paper, but it’s getting hit. It’s not necessarily about how nasty one pitch or another might be, it’s about how the pitches in your arsenal work with each other. And the way you do that is by changing speeds and getting awkward swings. It might be because you had a guy fooled on the pitch.
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of awkward swings on the curveball and changeup and that’s just because I’ve been throwing my fastball for strikes, so they’re forced to swing the bat more. Really it’s more about execution, changing speeds, and keeping the hitter off balance for me now than it is about having elite stuff.
CI: What is the mechanical checkpoint that helps determine where your command will be on a given day?
DC: It’s taking every single pitch as its own individual event and clearing your mind from the last pitch. You can’t control what has already happened. Just execute every pitch instead of just trying to let one rip or overthrow one because you get mad. Then you’re just hoping it goes where you want it to.
There are days where my outing was not good. It’s one of those things where I wasn’t pitching well and the balls that they hit didn’t go to people. It’s just one of those things that’s out of your control once the ball is out of your hand. Once that started happening, I lost focus.
CI: There are some guys who like to go over Trackman and Rapsodo data, others who like to watch video, and some who do nothing at all. What kind of data/information guy are you? Where do you fall on that spectrum?
DC: With the Twins, there was no option. There was a Rapsodo in every bullpen and there was a game review that looked at where you throw it and how your stuff was playing including vertical breaks and spin rates. I got really into that, which is good when you’re [pitching] good.
Now, it’s more so as needed. I used it a lot at the beginning when I was with the Cubs because I wanted to know what the slider was doing. Because now I’m so much more focused on every pitch, my memory and my feel for what I was doing that game is pretty exact from pitch to pitch. I don’t need the video that much because I remember how it felt. So I’m adjusting to how I feel rather than how I look.
When you pause a video, you can’t feel that. I can see that my head’s open, but how did I get there? I know that last game I was missing in this location. Let’s make an adjustment in the bullpen. I don’t really watch video anymore.
I don’t like to look at the data on my pitches too much because it can make you feel bad about a good outing or it can make you feel good about a bad outing. Those are things more for the front office to look at and evaluate and see whether my stuff would play at the big league level. I think that’s the reason they use it.
I don’t think the Twins were doing anything wrong, they were very clear on what they wanted and what you had to do to become a big leaguer. I’m sure that the Cubs have similar standards. At some point, you just gotta do what you can do.
5th K for Chalmers. Likely done after 58 pitches in 4 innings. 1 hit, 0 runs, but 3 walks pic.twitter.com/PZs6b9xJEr
— Todd ⚾️🐻 (@CubsCentral08) July 8, 2021
This fall is going to be important for Chalmers’ development since he’s technically a minor league free agent at the end of the season. The Cubs can avoid that by placing him on the 40-man roster, which seems like a no-brainer considering he’s probably the healthiest and most talented pitcher they currently have at Double-A. With the success he’s had this summer, he could be in the rotation at some point in the next year or two if he controls his arsenal.
Chalmers won’t turn 25 until October, which is very young for a guy who’s been playing pro ball for parts of seven seasons already. For the sake of comparison, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson are 25 and 26, respectively. With a reset currently taking place at the big league level, the Cubs have both the desire and the patience to see what Chalmers can do with a little more experience in their system.
Thanks to Bryan Smith and John Conyers, who helped craft some ideas to discuss, and to Leslie Soffa of the Smokies for helping to arrange the interview.