With their third pitching coach in as many seasons, the Cubs may have found something special.
The Cubs succeeded in 2016 for several reasons, but the most important may have been their starting pitching. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks finished second and third (respectively) in Cy Young voting. After a less-successful 2017, the team fired pitching coach Chris Bosio at the behest of Joe Maddon. After parting ways with Bosio, the Cubs brought in Jim Hickey who had previously worked with Joe Maddon in his time with the Rays. Hickey seemed to do a fine job in 2018, but he resigned for personal reasons at the end of the season, going on to join the Dodgers’ front office under fellow ex-Ray Andrew Friedman. Left without a pitching coach during the 2018-2019 offseason, the Cubs looked within and promoted their “Run Prevention Coordinator” Tommy Hottovy.
In many ways, Hottovy previously filled the “conduit” role mentioned in Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's The MVP Machine. Along with catching/strategy/assistant-pitching coach Mike Borzello, Hottovy acted as a liaison between the front office and the dugout, synthesizing data and player feedback to improve the Cubs’ pitching strategy. This season, though, Hottovy was moved from his secret weapon role into the spotlight, and the results have been impressive. Although the Cubs’ bullpen has struggled as a unit at times, individual pitchers have made significant strides forward. Hottovy has helped the pitching staff make a plethora of changes, but three in particular stand out.
José Quintana is currently putting together his best stretch of starts as a Cub, and possibly one of the best of his career. In his last four starts before Saturday, he struck out 33 and walked only one.
The reason? He's been throwing his sinker higher in the zone. This sounds counterintuitive, but Hottovy is encouraging rotation-mate Kyle Hendricks to do the same. This has allowed Quintana's changeup and curveball to play up, and seems to be confounding hitters thus far.
Kyle Ryan has a 3.21 ERA (matched by a 3.20 FIP) over 47.2 innings, good for the most WAR by a non-starter on the Cubs pitching staff. Ryan serves an important role as the only remaining non-Derek-Holland lefty in the bullpen, but he doesn't just get lefties out. He's posted the 15th-highest groundball rate among qualified relievers.
Ryan credits a lot of his success to the Cubs’ new Pitch Lab and Tommy Hottovy. They identified that his release point had slipped and implemented a change. Ryan now has the left-most release point in the league, and it's led to him becoming a reliable force in a shaky bullpen.
Only half of the Cubs’ opening-day bullpen remains with the team. Wick was initially called on to fill one of the gaps left by injuries and underperformance, but since coming up from AAA Iowa on July 23rd, he's impressed with the following line:
12.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 16 K, .311 OPS
Wick been the fifth-most valuable reliever by WAR in all of baseball since that date while generating the sixth-highest groundball rate (minimum 10 IP).
When you look at Wick's stuff, you'll be reminded of a typical good reliever in 2019: a hard fastball thrown high in the zone and a nasty curveball. The improved curveball is a result of a change in grip suggested by Hottovy.
Of course, Hottovy and Borzello had success in previous years. But having Hottovy in the driver's seat in the dugout has greatly improved the flow of information from the front office to individual pitchers. In an organization that has failed to develop pitchers as well as they would like, the successes of Wick and Ryan are particularly encouraging. This could be Joe Maddon's last season as the Cubs’ manager. If that is the case, Cubs fans should hope the new manager keeps Hottovy in his current role so they can continue to watch their pitchers thrive.
Hey, look at this reliever
Meet Reds reliever Lucas Sims. A former first-round draft pick of the Braves in 2012, Sims has struggled as a starter in the majors. He recently joined the Reds bullpen, though, and he came to my attention during a Statcast search. Sims has…(minimum 100 pitches)
- The fourth-highest curveball spin rate
- The fourth-highest slider spin rate
- The eighth-highest four-seamer spin rate
- The third-highest sinker spin rate
Sims’ best pitch may be his curveball, which can make great hitters like Ronald Acuña look like this:
The Reds’ righty might not be a shutdown reliever just yet (he still has some walk issues, which can be compounded by the occasional home run) but he certainly has the makings of one.
WAR leaderboard check-in
Of course, we've heard a lot about Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich this year, and rightfully so, but in terms of Fangraphs WAR, they're not dominating their league anywhere close to the same extent Trout is dominating the AL.
Bellinger has 0.4 wins on Yelich, and Yelich has 0.8 wins on Ketel Marte. Most columnists seem to agree that the NL MVP race is between Bellinger and Yelich.
According to Fangraphs, Trout has been worth 2.8 wins more than the next best player in the American League. Not only that, he has a 1.5 win advantage over Bellinger, and nearly two wins on Yelich. Even if you discount defense and baserunning, Trout still has the highest wRC+ among all qualified hitters at 184.
Bellinger and Yelich are having incredible seasons, but Trout still reigns.