MESA, Ariz. — One look at the “Pitch Lab in Progress” sign with the big red arrow, and the nerd jokes don’t seem far behind.
The arrow points to a chain-link cage at the Cubs’ spring-training facility so top-secret that a full-length canvas protects the spin-rate and axis intelligentsia from peeping scribes.
It’s so off-limits that even the Cubs’ oft-embedded media favorites aren’t allowed to view the inner workings.
Is there something in there that made the Cubs’ bullpen so hard to hit last year? Is it where they brewed the potion that has Yu Darvish smiling so much and throwing 97-mph strikes this spring? Does the secret behind Jon Lester’s ability to sustain All-Star-caliber standards into his mid-30s lie somewhere in the depths of that bat cave of pitching info?
Maybe, probably not and no chance.
But it is a place where the Cubs hope to use the latest technology in high-speed cameras and pitch monitors to extract an advantage in the increasingly competitive National League — whether anybody in the organization without a lab coat or geek-department polo fully grasps the extent of its potential.
Even manager Joe Maddon seems to have only a general sense of “the analytical lab and sh–.”
The Ivy League graduate of the pitching staff, who once led the majors in ERA, skips the lab while working on a curveball he wants to turn into a “weapon” this year because for now it’s about feel for him.
“There’s no numbers that are going to tell me anything to make me use it more,” Kyle Hendricks said.
And the NL’s crown prince of spin rate?
Carl Edwards Jr. wants no part of the techie numbers game. He even struggles to find a word in the language to express the thought.
“I’m not going to get my ‘flabber’ — and all that stuff. I have no idea,” Edwards said. “The only thing I know is, ‘Let’s just try your best to throw strikes and get outs.’ ”
It’s unclear what kind of contraption inside that cage might produce a metric to help Edwards’ “flabber.”
But the relatively new technology behind the canvas curtain has been sweeping across the major-league landscape for at least three years, with the Cubs incorporating it into their pitching “infrastructure” primarily in the last two.
“I love that lab,” said Class AAA right-hander Duane Underwood, who made an impressive four-inning debut with the Cubs last summer. “I wish I could get in there more.”
The actual technology in the lab isn’t as secret as the application processes the Cubs don’t want to share.
Like most teams in the majors, they’re using Edgertronic-brand high-speed cameras to track deliveries and Rapsodo-brand monitors to track spin rates, pitch axes, velocity, break and other data.
“Forever, for better or worse, what you had were the eyes of coaches and catchers, and the video,” said Tommy Hottovy, the Cubs’ first-year pitching coach who spent much of the last four years as a pitching analyst.
“So you would throw a pitch, and you’d turn and be like, ‘That didn’t feel right’ or ‘How did that spin look?’ And you were reliant solely on the catcher’s feedback. But do you ever really know?”
This year the Cubs have improved the integration of the machines into in-house computer programming to increase the mobility and speed of the feedback. They can provide an instantaneous, data-based answer to the question that pitcher asked after throwing a pitch in the bullpen.
“What this information does is, one, either solidify things that we’re seeing or, two, help us identify things that we maybe don’t see with the naked eye all the time,” Hottovy said. “It helps us see that much faster.”
Don’t think the grip being suggested by the coach and geeks feels right, so you won’t use it? Maybe the data says you’re wrong.
“Most of the time, you’re going to err on the side of what feels more comfortable,” Hottovy said, “and what feels more comfortable may not always be what the best option is.”
So what? Lester doesn’t have much use for it, and he has made five All-Star teams. Hendricks doesn’t need it, and he beat Clayton Kershaw for the 2016 pennant and started Game 7 in the World Series.
What kind of advantage can the Cubs expect to actually achieve? Two percent? Ten?
And how? And who’s listening?
“It’s more for me about the efficiency,” Hottovy said. “Let’s say you can execute a pitch seven out of 10 times. If you can increase that by 10 percent, now that seven out of 10 becomes eight out of 10, or you get more comfortable with what that pitch is doing and make it better, and you end up using it more in better situations.
“We’re not only making the pitches incrementally better. You’re probably making your usage of them go up and your comfort level with those pitches go up. And not every single guy is going to take it and learn something new. If anything, it solidifies where they’re at and what they’re feeling.
“But if it helps a third of the guys improve one pitch, that can change a season for a guy.”
Or for a team?
“It’s great information, especially if you utilize it right,” said Underwood, who says it has made a “night-and-day” difference with the curveball he’s trying to perfect this spring.
“There’s a machine behind you. Literally as you’re throwing the pitch, you can turn around and ask those guys, ‘What’d that pitch do? How’d it come out of my hand?’ They can pull it up for you. You can make an adjustment on the next pitch.”
For someone working on something specific, like Underwood, the instant data feedback turns a “trial-and-error” process into an accelerated clinic in pitch construction.
Able to put precise values on how slight alterations to the grip affect direction and degree of break on each pitch can potentially condense a week of bullpen labor into a day.
“I’ve never had this much advancement on one pitch in my entire life,” Underwood said.
Maddon may not be geek-department-certified yet, but he appreciates the lab for its potential to bust myths and soften hardheadedness.
“When you get a guy with a high leg kick and doing all kinds of stuff, and he thinks he needs that to get [velocity], then you put him in there and say we’re going to measure that,” Maddon said. “And now we’re going to measure you doing this [from a shortened delivery]. And the numbers are the same.
“That’s where stuff like that to me is valuable.”
And the reams of new information aren’t just about pitch trajectories and increases in velocity or spin rates.
Sometimes a pitcher might have too much spin rate for what he throws.
“It just depends on the type of pitch they have, with arm slot, the repertoire, how it plays together,” Hottovy said. “So the spin does matter for everybody; it’s just how you use it.
“Everybody can get something out of it, which is really cool.”
Even if not everybody wants to hear it.
“Yeah, you’ll have to talk to Tommy,” Edwards said.