The Chicago Cubs have a tough process ahead of them. Under the new leadership of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the Cubs look to rebuild through their farm system. After the Cubs’ top pitching prospects collapsed in 2011, the Cubs need to piece together the broken pieces. 2010 first rounder Hayden Simpson posted a 6.27 ERA and 4.2 FIP in 25 starts and 2 relief appearances. Top relief prospect Chris Carpenter fell to a 5.91 ERA and 5.24 FIP in 30 appearances. Robinson Lopez, acquired in the Derrek Lee trade, posted a 5.35 ERA and a 5.21 FIP in 4 starts and 22 relief appearances and the Cubs subsequently released him. Austin Reed, coming off an outstanding pro debut, posted a 6.08 ERA and 4.65 FIP in 13 starts and 2 relief appearances. Highly-regarded international signee Alberto Cabrera posted a 6.16 ERA and 4.87 FIP in 26 starts and 2 relief appearances. And even top pitching prospect, 22 year old Trey McNutt, fell apart after a scintillating 2010, posting a 4.55 ERA and a 3.87 FIP in 22 starts and a relief appearance at Double-A as his K/9 free-fell from 10.2 to 6.2. How will these pitchers react to their failure? Can they recover to be a part of the future of the Cubs? Today we’ll look at one of these pitchers, Trey McNutt and see whether he can rebound from his 2011 struggles.
Looking at a couple of scouting reports (Bullpen Banter from prior to 2011 and Fangraphs from after), McNutt, 6’4″ and 220 pounds, throws a fastball that ranges from 92-94 MPH and touches as high as 98 at times with late movement down and away from right-handed batters. At its best, it’s a plus-plus pitch, while at its worst it straightens out and gets absolutely hammered. McNutt’s second upper-echelon pitch is a slurve, essentially a curveball with harder, slider-esque velocity, but that combination limits its effectiveness a little bit as sometimes its late break has not been as sharp and it has not been able to force as many swings-and-misses. He wraps up his arsenal with a mid-80’s changeup with a nice velocity difference with his fastball but he has at times had problems selling it. McNutt has solid, not great, overall control, and his effectiveness in the long term is based on how many swings and misses he is able to force. We have Pitch F/X data from McNutt from his time in the Arizona Fall League, and we’ll use that to compare it with this scouting report and to quantify some of the things that we’ve said above. The data is from Brooks Baseball while the graph is my original.
(For a general explanation of the topic of Pitch F/X and specifically how to read this type of graph, please click here.)
McNutt’s graph shows his potential but also shows the reasons that he has struggled. We see that McNutt’s fastball did have nice run and late sink at just under 95 MPH and you see how it could be a plus-plus pitch thanks to that, but it lost effectiveness as McNutt used it 74% of the time in this sample of pitches. Because of that, he forced very few swings and misses and more flyballs than groundballs with the pitch, according to Brooks Baseball. The reason he did that was clearly because he didn’t trust his secondary pitches.
The problems with McNutt’s secondary pitches start before he even delivers them. If you take out your magnifying glass and stare at the graph (click for an enlarged view), you can see that McNutt starts his changeup just a touch more away from right-handed batters (meaning that he put it more behind his bat) and his slurve’s release point was more pronouncedly away from his fastball’s. In terms of movement, McNutt’s changeup was solid, registering as his best pitch to force whiffs, but he couldn’t command it well and allowed a few too many flyballs off of it.
His slurve in this sample, though, was a complete train wreck. For starters, he couldn’t locate it, and even when he did, the different starting point as he released it tipped it a little bit, and its movement wasn’t dynamic enough to compensate. McNutt’s slurve had big-looking curveball break but with the increased velocity, but the pitch did not feature such great depth. When McNutt’s slider has flashed plus, McNutt was able to throw it out of the same release point at his fastball, providing deception, and get sharper downward action on it while still getting bigger break. Among his slurve, Brooks classified it approximately 5/6 of the time as a curveball and 1/6 of the time as a slider. It was more effective when it was classified as a slider- although a closer look indicates that that additional effectiveness was only because it started looking more like his fastball. Fangraphs (linked to above) noted that “McNutt had a tendency to wrap his wrist behind his ear, snapping the pitch awfully hard at times. It’s something he will need to smooth out.” McNutt has to address that issue. It could go hand and hand with the fact that McNutt was frustrated about how hard his breaking pitch was getting hit. He may have been trying to overcompensate, and that failed in every aspect.
From this sample, McNutt looked like an erratic 4th starter, one who at times is unhittable and other times gets hit hard and serves up home run after home run. (Jeff Niemann‘s stuff and build are completely different than McNutt, but McNutt seems similar to him in terms of his inconsistency). That may be his future, but he has the potential to be better than that. McNutt, first off, has to more his arm back the same way or at least close to it for all three of his pitches. He has to use his changeup and slurve effectively enough to take some of the pressure off his fastball. McNutt’s changeup has definitely improved in terms of movement, but he has to locate it better, and he has to clean up his slurve in order to get the unique combination of depth and sharper break that he has gotten on it at its best. Trey McNutt still has number two starter upside if he can accomplish that, but he comes with a ton of risk for a Double-A pitcher at this point. Theo Epstein and the Cubs have to hope that this is the year McNutt figures everything out.
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