From Kris Bryant trade to Cubs pitch lab: Prospect Caleb Kilian hones his arsenal

Pitching six perfect innings in the Arizona Fall League championship game was an early step for Caleb Kilian in a process that includes two new pitch grips.

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Cubs pitching prospect Caleb Kilian throws a ball during long toss at the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, AZ.

The Cubs acquired pitching prospect Caleb Kilian from the Giants last summer, in the trade package for Kris Bryant.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Caleb Kilian was on his way out to throw a bullpen session last July when he noticed he had a missed call from Giants farm director Kyle Haines. 

Kilian called back, and the news from Haines reversed the pitcher’s plans. 

“I couldn’t throw my bullpen. I couldn’t go to the game,” Kilian recounted in a conversation with the Sun-Times on Wednesday. “I left like an hour later, said goodbye to everybody, all my friends, and then moved out of my apartment and was in Tennessee the next day.”

Kilian, along with outfield prospect Alexander Canario, had been traded to the Cubs for Kris Bryant. 

While Cubs fans reeled from last summer’s trade deadline, which sent stars Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Bryant to New York and San Francisco, a whirlwind week swept up Kilian and dropped him onto the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate. And though the timeline for the Cubs’ next championship window remains uncertain, recent acquisitions like Kilian already are showing promise.

Kilian inspired headlines in November when he pitched six perfect innings in the Arizona Fall League championship game. That shining performance was an early step in a process that, for Kilian, includes two new pitch grips. 

In Killian’s first week in Tennessee, his new club outlined the changes they wanted him to work toward. But it was still in the middle of the season, so the Cubs didn’t want him to make big adjustments just yet, Kilian said.

Those changes would wait until Kilian was ramping up for the fall league, when he could get into the pitch lab. 

“And I’d use the fall league as an opportunity to kind of figure them out,” he said. 

Kilian, however, doesn’t attribute his championship performance to his new pitch grips. Instead, he points to his motivation to bounce back from an earlier poor outing and a collective drive to win it all.

About two weeks ago, his changeup started “really clicking.”

“It would flash sometimes during catch,” Kilian said. “But, overall, it was like 80% of them were bad, 20% are probably good. And now it’s consistently looking much better. It’s a really good feeling.”

Kilian had been throwing his changeup with a “vulcan” grip, which is basically the vulcan salute from ‘‘Star Trek,’’ wrapped around a baseball. He described his old changeup as “very below-average.” 

In the pitch lab, the Cubs identified a circle change, with a grip that creates a circle between the thumb and pointer finger, as Kilian’s best version of the pitch, creating the action they were looking for. 

Kilian also tweaked his curveball grip, digging the tip of his pointer finger into the ball, rather than laying it flatter for a more traditional curve.

This offseason, the Cubs launched a new training program that opened its Sloan Park facilities in Mesa to interested prospects. After the fall league, Kilian was one of the 30 or so players, as estimated by vice president of player development Jared Banner, who took part in the offseason camp. 

Now in minicamp, Kilian is focused on maintaining the progress he has made in recent months. 

“Keep this changeup going,” he said. “That was a huge focus of mine this offseason. And then execute, perform well, get stronger, stay healthy.”

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