To the lab: How Cubs are challenging poor pitching development reputation

Cubs prospects like DJ Herz, Caleb Kilian and Jordan Wicks have seen their arsenals transform with new pitch grips.

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Cubs prospect DJ Herz throws live batting practice at the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Cubs prospect DJ Herz throws live batting practice at the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs first-round draft pick Jordan Wicks remembers the thud of his sweat-drenched jersey as it hit the floor of the pitch lab. 

It was last July, a sweltering day, and his first experience in the Arizona facility designed to supply heaps of pitching data for the organization.

“It feels a lot better being in there this time of year,” Wicks said last week during prospect minicamp. “I’m not sweating like crazy.” 

Even when the Cubs were consistently going to the playoffs, they were criticized for the lack of big-league pitching they developed. Their 2016 championship core was made up of young hitters, and over the years, they paid handsomely to supplement pitching to match. 

But in recent years, they have begun to challenge that reputation, with homegrown pitchers Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson showing promise — if not always consistency — last season. The key is sustaining that progress.

“That’s our main goal: basically all the pitchers,” right-handed prospect Kohl Franklin said of shifting the outside perception of the Cubs’ pitching development. “It’s always talked about, it’s always in the back of our minds, and it’s something we definitely want to change.”

The Cubs’ work with minor-leaguers early in their careers, extracting the best version of each pitch in their arsenals, is a key to making that a reality. 

To identify the best grip for a specific pitch, Casey Jacobson, coordinator of pitching development, said he starts with the pitcher’s mechanics. Then he turns to high-speed video to see how the ball is coming out of the pitcher’s hand. 

“Pair that with the pitch data that we get,” he said, “and usually, if you’ve done it enough times, it gives you a pretty good idea of what grip is going to help make the movement that you want.” 

Take DJ Herz, for example. The Cubs’ eighth-round pick in 2019 was their minor-league pitcher of the year last season, posting a combined 3.31 ERA in Single-A Myrtle Beach and South Bend. 

What clicked? 

Hertz points to his new changeup grip and moving to the other side of the rubber for a crossfire delivery. The new, deceptive approach clicked right away, although finding the best changeup took some trial and error. 

Jacobson called the first grip they tried “OK.” But when they switched to the “Vulcan grip” — with the middle and ring fingers creating a “V” — they saw the type of movement they were looking for. 

“It was nasty off my fastball,” Herz said.

The Cubs also changed right-hander Caleb Kilian’s changeup, abandoning his Vulcan grip and switching to a circle change.  

For Wicks, the changeup was already a strength. But he said his curveball has “made absolute leaps and bounds forward,” giving him a pitch with a lot of depth. A tweak to his slider “completely changed it for the better,” creating more horizontal sweep. And he has shifted his focus away from his two-seam fastball, in favor of his four-seamer’s vertical ride.

“You learn about analytics stuff like that early, in college,” Wicks said, “but you don’t really understand the meaning of it, or what to put emphasis on. Here, they teach you about it, and they say, ‘This is what it means, this is what you’re looking for, this is what you want.’ ”

They’re also cognizant of tailoring the pace of information to each pitcher and his experience. The data is useless if the player doesn’t have the time or base knowledge to absorb it.

“A guy like Jordan, who really knows his stuff, he knows his arsenal, he has a very good idea of who he is as a pitcher, you can gener-ally work a little bit more with those guys, give him a couple different things at a time without it getting muddy,” Jacobson said.

The result?

Said Wicks: “I feel like I’m loaded up weapon-wise different than I ever have been.”

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