If you've heard Theo Epstein talk about player development, you've probably heard this phrase: Control the Zone. Short hand for how Theo wants Cubs players to use the strike zone to their advantage, people generally understand the application when it comes to hitters. Work counts in your favor, and attack pitches you can drive, not just pitches that happen to be strikes.
The same logic applies to pitchers as well. The Cubs want to control the zone, which means throwing strikes and more importantly, not walking people. What's missing in that equation is the corollary to 'attack pitches you can drive'. Just like the Cubs want hitters to focus on strikes that they can drive, they want pitchers to throw strikes that are less likely to be driven. This isn't easy to do, and almost as difficult to measure, but I think contact management is something the Cubs put a lot of weight behind.
You can see that emphasis in who they entrust with MLB innings. Specifically in the rotation you see Jake Arrieta, who is certainly good in the fielding-independent sense, but also has earned the title 'king of weak contact'. The real shining example though is Kyle Hendricks, who without elite stuff continues to confound major league hitters to the tune of a 3.30 ERA in 351.1 IP. A large part of that is Hendricks' elite control and underrated ability to get strikeouts, his career FIP is a nearly identical 3.38 after all, but he also does a great job of managing contact, as Rob Arthur thoroughly demonstrated with Statcast data.
With that in mind, what I'd like to do is focus our attention to the Cubs farm system, and try to find other examples of pitchers we might be overlooking, similar to how Hendricks became a MLB mainstay without fanfare. To simulate those 'control the zone' tenets I put together a few criteria:
- Pitchers with < 7% BB%. You need to throw strikes to avoid walks.
- Pitchers with > 10% K%-BB%. While avoiding walks is important, especially when facing minor league hitters you need to strike some of them out if you have a shot to do so against MLB hitters.
- Pitchers with < .300 BABIP. As contact management is the hardest to measure, this is the crudest metric we'll use. But to repeat what we said above, if you're giving up lots of hits to minor leaguers, you probably aren't going to turn that around at the Major League level without a big adjustment.
Our criteria in hand, let's look at a few prospects who narrowly missed the cut:
- Jonathan Martinez - Martinez is one of the first pitchers of this mold that the front office acquired, getting him in the 2014 Darwin Barney deal. He was only a few K's short of meeting our criteria last year, but everything has been worse in repeating Myrtle Beach this year.
- Jeremy Null - Null is an elite strike-thrower(his MiLB BB% is better than Hendricks) and he gets enough K's to give some optimism too. When hitters make contact though they're hitting him hard(.356 BABIP in Myrtle Beach this year), which bodes poorly for him as a college draftee in High-A.
- Brad Markey - Markey checked all the boxes last year, across two levels he combined a BB% in the 3's with solid K rates and strong contact prevention(including 1 HR in 84 IP). While his ERA at AA has been solid, his performance in our criteria has fallen off. His walk rate has almost tripled, his K rate has collapsed, and he's given up 9 HR in 77 IP.
So who does measure up? Let's focus on 4 pitchers in particular.
You could be forgiven for not recognizing Bloomquist's name, as a 17th round pick last year from Cal Poly he didn't draw raves from scouts(Baseball America ranked him their #382 prospect in the draft). The Cubs signed him for the slot value of $100k, and until the past month he had been a piggyback starter/multi-inning reliever for Eugene and South Bend. That last fact in particular should make us want to wait and see before putting too much hype on Bloomquist, but he's done good work as a pro pitcher. In 85.1 IP he has a 2.43 ERA, 77/10 K/BB ratio, .31 HR/9, and .263 BABIP. Most importantly, in his brief time as a starter he's matched our criteria too: 3.5 BB%, 14.2 K%-BB%, and a .267 BABIP, driving a 1.93 ERA. A long ways to go, but Bloomquist is a name to keep an eye on.
Another name that won't show up on a Top 10 or even a Top 30 prospect list, Hedges was a 26th rounder in the 2014 draft from Azusa Pacific University. In both 2015 in South Bend and thus far in 2016 for Myrtle Beach he's met our criteria, and the encouraging fact is he's been better at the higher level. A 4.9% BB%, 10.1% K-BB%, and .271 BABIP are the real drivers behind his 2.61 ERA. Only 2 home runs in 79.1 IP is a good sign too. On the downside, Hedges turns 24 in October and with his very modest K rate he'll have to continue to hold onto this year's improvements to have an MLB future. Not a likely outcome, but Hedges has shown improvement at a higher level already so there's some room for optimism.
Here's a name prospect enthusiasts might be more familiar with, Kellogg was a 5th round pick last year and has had a solid, if inconsistent, first full season in pro ball. At South Bend he's carrying a 5.4 BB%, 13.9% K%-BB%, and .274 BABIP, and even more encouraging has been his recent progress. June saw him post a 1.6 (!) BB%, 20% K%-BB% and .250 BABIP, powering a 1.67 ERA. If he can build on that June he has enough prospect pedigree to be taken seriously in the Hendricks mold, he even carries a similar repertoire, with his 88-91 mph sinker and changeup as his two best weapons.
Williams caught a bit of attention for his quick rise to AA last year, but probably not as much as he deserved. After proving too much for Low-A hitters in early 2015, Williams spent most of last year at Tennessee, where he posted a 2.76 ERA, driven by a 4.7 BB%, 13.2 K%-BB%, .273 BABIP, and only 2 HR in 88 IP. That's exciting performance for someone who was in college the previous year, and tempered mostly by his lack of elite velocity. Like our ideal contact manager Hendricks, Williams sits in the high 80s with late movement, but he can touch 92-93 when he wants to. Despite the great success and rapid movement, Williams doesn't have much prospect helium, Baseball America barely fit him into the Cubs Top 30 for this year at #27.
This year hasn't seen quite as much success for Williams, but starting at AAA less than 2 years after he was drafted, he's still met our criteria. His 3.30 ERA in a hitter's league is solid, and a 6.7 % BB%, 10% K%-BB%, and .293 BABIP are worse than his AA numbers but still match our parameters. In what is maybe the most telling statement about how underrated Williams is, he's been hurt for 6 weeks and it has barely drawn any attention. Williams hasn't pitched since May 19th with an unknown arm injury, which is too bad as his May (3.1% BB%, 18.3% K-BB%, .270 BABIP) was much better than his April. The good news is that Williams's rapid rise to AAA means he has plenty of time to get healthy and continue the improvement of his last few starts. He doesn't need to be put on the 40 man roster until after next season, and with a relative dearth of quality SP prospects in the Cubs system(especially at high levels), Williams will have plenty of opportunity to make the final adjustments he needs for MLB readiness.
One takeaway that should be had here is that the Cubs are very lucky to have Kyle Hendricks, he's a pretty rare and valuable commodity even if the prospect industry didn't think as much of him going through the ranks. The other bit of good news is that Hendricks sets a high enough bar that even those who don't clear it can still be major leaguers, and potentially good ones. So next time you see a sparkling ERA on a prospect but sigh at the fact that they aren't striking out the world, give a look to how else they control the zone, with walks and lack of hard contact. There might be more substance than you expect.