Luke Little’s Homegrown Heat Helps Gives Cubs Staff Entirely New Look

Few displays of machismo on fields of athletic competition are more badass — or maybe just insane — than choosing to go without long sleeves in frigid temps.  And while baseball can’t touch its gridiron counterpart when it comes to pure cold, I’ll take just about anything above -20 over upper 30s/low 40s and rainy. Freezing is one thing, but being damp and cold is a whole ‘nother level of suckitude.

It’s fitting then that a dude who looks more like an offensive lineman was out there opening for the Cubs on Wednesday night in a game pretty much no one thought was going to be played. The inappropriately named Luke Little — who was selected in the truncated 2020 draft of the strength of a viral bullpen video that showed him touching 105 mph — lumbered to the mound as the first Cub since Warren Hacker on May 2, 1955 to start a game the day after finishing one, and he did so without so much as a short-sleeved undershirt.

Before moving on to his actual performance, can we talk about how Little is listed at 220 pounds? Dude is 6-foot-8 and he’s an absolute unit, so I’m not accepting anything under 250 with less than a cocked eye. He was the personification of “mass equals gas” in his inning of work, topping 97 mph on 12 of his 14 pitches to retire the Rockies in order.

Little sandwiched a strikeout between fielding a pair of “look what I found” comebackers that got to the mound even more hastily than they’d been delivered to the plate. Charlie Blackmon grounded out to Little at 97.7 mph on a pitch that was 97.6 and Ryan McMahon turned Little’s hardest offering of the evening around at 106.6 mph. One good inning in one sloppy game might end up coming out in the washer of time, but the much more important story is about how Little is part of a cadre of pitchers changing the face of the Cubs’ staff.

Remember how I wrote that 12 of the big lefty’s pitches were thrown 97.4 mph or harder? Those were also the 12 hardest pitches thrown in the game. Relievers Nick Mears and Jake Bird fired several offerings at 95+ to fill in right behind little, but a bulk of the pitches in that 95-97 mph range came from bulk man Ben Brown. The rookie long reliever cracked 95+ 28 times in his 52 tosses, giving him nearly half of the 65 pitches thrown that hard in the game.

Julian Merryweather accounted for four of his own in that upper-tier velocity, meaning the Cubs had two-thirds of the 95+ mph offerings on the evening. Not bad for a team that sat 18th in MLB with an average fastball velocity of 94.1 mph by relievers last season. The Cubs were 27th in ’22 with 92.9 mph, 20th in ’21 with 93.6 mph, and haven’t ranked higher than 13th since 2016. During that glorious curse-busting season, Cubs relievers ranked fifth in MLB with an average fastball of 93.5 mph.

Before I start making any bold statements here, I have to note that their 94.1 mph average so far this season is right in line with last season and sits just 16th in baseball. However, they also have Daniel Palencia and Cam Sanders waiting in wings, and both of them can touch 99 mph. Caleb Kilian can likewise reach that kind of velocity and was popping the glove in a big way during spring training, though he’s out for the first half with a shoulder injury.

Whether it’s via free agency, waiver claims, or the draft, the Cubs are starting to see the results at the big league level of a focus on bigger stuff that began back in 2019. That philosophical shift occurred far too late and was part of what cost former farm director Jason McLeod his job, but my broken flux capacitor means we can’t go back in time to talk them out of being uber-conservative with their pitching development 10 years ago.

Besides, would you really want to target 88 mph? Delayed though it may be, Little and the other young arms coming up through the system should be able to produce at least 1.21 gigawatts of power over the next few years.

Even more important than simply throwing hard is the ability to throw all of your offerings with the conviction that you put them over the plate and still get outs. Velo provides an advantage there in terms of expanding the margin for error, but it doesn’t matter how hard you throw if you can’t mix things up and locate well. That will be the most important factor in Little, Brown, and others finding consistent success over the course of the season and their respective careers.

I can’t say whether that’ll happen, but it sure is a lot more fun to watch these young arms coming in with big-time swing-and-miss stuff rather than watching a parade of soft-tossing veterans. Wow, that’s probably too many hyphenated words. And while the Cubs do still have some of those vets, it’s much better when they can be deployed situationally as a change of pace rather than the status quo.

That should be more evident as Craig Counsell gets a better feel for his relief corps, plus we should see even bigger velo numbers and cleaner stuff when the weather is more cooperative. Hell, we just saw the new manager have one rookie work a clopen and then follow that with another providing four innings of “relief.” It’s early yet, but I am very bullish on what this ‘pen can be.

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