Scott Effross wasn’t really supposed to be here. He had moved pretty steadily through the system since being selected in the 15th round in 2015, making his way to Double-A Tennessee to start the 2018 season, but that’s when he seemed to have plateaued. It’s a story everyone has seen and heard a million times before, baseball’s equivalent of the Peter principle in which a decent player is promoted until he reaches a point at which his skills are no longer enough to propel him forward.
For Effross, who had pushed through the lower levels largely on the strength of his consistency as a pitcher and person, the momentum came to a screeching halt in early June of 2019. He was still in Tennessee after posting a 5.97 ERA across 63.1 innings (44 appearances) the previous season and his 5.88 ERA through 33.2 innings wasn’t saying much. Worse, his 11.6% strikeout rate had dropped to nearly half of what it was in 2018.
No one would have blamed the Cubs for cutting bait at that point, something other organizations might well have done. After all, Effross just didn’t seem like he had a real shot to contribute to the organization as more than a tremendous person and teammate. And I hate to hate to tell you this, but most teams don’t keep guys around just because they’re nice or because they provide depth in the minors.
In this case, however, the Cubs saw what might be the smallest crack in a window to much greater success and they knew it would take a unique combination of traits to pry it open. Not only did Effross already have a low three-quarter delivery, but his demeanor and hunger were such that he was willing and able to do whatever it took to continue his pitching career.
At first glance from the outside, it looked as though the righty was simply hurt. The Cubs placed him on the 7-day IL on June 14, 2019, just five days after he’d made his first and only start of the season, and no public mention was made of the reason for the designation. And since not many people are paying attention to someone who hadn’t yet created any buzz, it wasn’t really until the Arizona Fall League several months later that the plan was revealed.
“I was actually still healthy, but the reason I was on the shelf for a little bit was the organization approached me right before the All-Star break and they actually asked me if I wanted to change my mechanics a little bit to try to throw more sidearm,” Effross explained to Cubs Insider in 2019. “I got the call and it was it was our last home series in Tennessee…and they called me and approached me about this and explained the reason why.
“Obviously it was a little — not disconcerting — but it was a little hard to hear [and] kinda scary to think about learning something new from what I’d been doing for my entire life.”
The cancellation of the 2020 season may have worked in his favor because it allowed him to further dial in those new mechanics without the added pressure of competition. While Effross and so many other minor league players would obviously have preferred being in uniform and playing actual games, the results he’s gotten since are proof that the layoff didn’t slow him down at all.
Effross opened the 2021 season back at Double-A, but was promoted after just eight appearances because he was displaying the highest strikeout rate of his career while limiting opponents to a .229 average. After an inauspicious start to his Triple-A career that saw him roughed up in an emergency starting roll, Effross shoved like never before en route to an even higher strikeout rate and a .189 average allowed over 42 innings.
That performance earned him a promotion to Chicago for the last month and change of the season, at which point Effross stepped things up yet again. His 31% strikeout rate over 14.2 innings was higher than anything he’d put up in the minors and his 1.7% walk rate was far lower than any previous mark. Okay, he did have a 1.8% walk rate over the same sample size at Myrtle Beach in ’19.
Still, there was plenty of reason to temper optimism due to the limited innings and the fact that it’s so much harder for a reliever to find success when he hardly throws 91 mph. Many were also concerned that a sidearm pitcher was getting reverse splits, with righties batting 40 points higher (.267 to .227) and putting up 49 more points of wOBA (.325 to .276). But each time he steps out there, Effross adds more evidence to the notion that he’s going to be a legit weapon out of the bullpen for years to come.
After a clean inning Wednesday night that saw him notch another strikeout, Effross has a 34.6% K-rate that is yet again higher than ever. His 2.57 ERA is actually much higher than any peripherals indicate it should be (0.96 xERA, 0.94 FIP, 1.68 xFIP) and he hasn’t allowed a single barrel yet in eight appearances. Could some of that change in a hurry? Sure, but the foundation for his success is solid enough to withstand the inevitable hiccup here and there.
Effross still has room to learn how he can further leverage that sidearm delivery to make hitters even more uncomfortable. He releases the ball more to the third base side than any pitcher in MLB, or at least that was the case last year, which presents a different look that hitters can’t often figure out right away. His fastball/slider come from behind righties and sweep so far in on lefties, making it hard to square them up.
Perhaps even more important to his continued success is the improvement in his changeup, which has been his best offering in terms of per-pitch value this season. All of his pitches are performing better than in ’21, but the change is up significantly after producing negative value. That emergence is not a matter of luck.
“I went from kind of a tradition split-finger type deal with a circle to almost overloading the ball on [the top] side and feeling like I have a wall on top of my wrist, so I can’t really get underneath it,” Effross explained on The Rant Live back in February. “If I’m gonna throw it, it’s gonna be down. If I miss down, that’s okay, I’m not gonna get hurt down there.
“But if I get underneath it and scoop it, it just floats and stays there and has no real effect from what I’m looking for. So I think being able to put a little pressure on [the left/top side] of my hand and creating an imaginary line of a wall and really forcing the ball down is helping me feel better with the action of it.”
Even with the change coming into its own, Effross still throws the slider four times as often and needs that breaking ball to work. And, boy, has it. Though he’s actually getting slightly less extension on it and generating a skosh less spin, hitters are baffled by it. More than a tweak to his grip, though, the increased success is largely a product of understanding how and where he needs it to move.
“The slider is the pitch that’s a difference-maker for me because I think just being able to throw that and compete with two good pitches with a different arm slot is enough to be competitive against a lot of guys,” Effross said. “In my mind, I’m trying to get it to go from here to here and just shift lanes as quick as possible.
“I think just being able to visualize my eye sights and my finish point on that has been the biggest thing. And I think just finding a grip that’s comfortable and that I’m able to turn over and kind of sweep my arm across the zone has been the best…I feel like I spun it alright before that, but having the focal point of where I’m trying to throw the pitch is separating it.”
Between an upgraded arsenal and what might be the most easygoing demeanor in all of baseball, Effross has become a pitcher David Ross can call on in just about any situation. Runners on second and third with two outs and you need to end a rally? Effross. Holding a 3-1 lead on the road against the reigning champs? Effross. Slamming the door on a football game? Effross.
Not starting Alfonso Rivas against a right-hander? F Ross. Sorry, I had to.
So yeah, Scott Effross really wasn’t supposed to be here. Most other pitchers in similar situations with different organizations would probably be pursuing a career other than professional baseball at this point. But a little less than three years after being placed on the IL in order to essentially re-learn how to pitch, Effross has become a mainstay in a Cubs bullpen that has been a bright spot for the team to this point.
If things keep going like this, he’ll become the most successful Cleveland-area export since LeBron James and the Baltimore Ravens.