Cubs Prospect Update: Jake Stinnett Adapting Quickly to Closer Role with Smokies

Affiliates never know what is going to happen over the course of a minor league season. Prospects will come and go and roles may change, all of it dictated by development plans set by the parent club. Over the past month, the Tennessee Smokies have had to deal with a lot of change. Starting pitcher Trevor Clifton and relievers Daury Torrez, James Norwood, Craig Brooks, and Dakota Mekkes were all called up to AAA Iowa.

Norwood and Brooks leaving opened up a lot of holes and roles to be filled at the back end of the pen for Tennessee. And while Wyatt Short was promoted from Myrtle Beach, most of the changes would have to come from within.

Since being drafted out of Maryland in the second round in 2014, Jake Stinnett had spent most of his pro career as a starting pitcher. It was clear right away that he had a lot of movement on his pitches, but the problem was that he struggled to control that movement. Stinnett worked to find some consistency with his pitches at South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee, fighting to a 4.39 career ERA heading into last season.

An injury forced him to miss most of 2017 season and he was shifted to the bullpen when he came back in late July. And for the last six weeks of the season, he had the best month and a half of his career. Over nine appearances, he put up a 0.61 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. It seemed as if Stinnett and the Cubs on to something.

He was assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and drew rave reviews as a reliever, giving rise to the thought that he would have some sort of back-end role when the 2018 season began. After Norwood and Brooks were promoted on June 25, Smokies manager Mark Johnson needed to find a new closer.

Stinnett had been a setup man and long reliever, posting a 2.16 ERA over eight April appearances, but had struggled more often than not through May and June. His first-half ERA was 5.54 ERA and opponents hit .264 with four homers against him in 26 innings. But he struck out 32 men in 26 innings and 10 of the 16 earned runs he allowed came in three games. Get rid of the home runs and his ERA dropped to 2.57.

For Stinnett to pitch in such a high leverage situation as a closer, he was going to have to make some changes. You often hear about hitters developing an approach at the plate and the same is true of pitchers. It’s not so much a matter of the actual pitches changing, more that the pitcher’s demeanor is different.

Broadcaster Mick Gillispie often comments on how quickly Stinnett works as a closer. In the old neighborhood, we used to just call it “rock and fire.” You just get the baseball, get your sign, and you let it rip. Hitters do not have a lot of time to think about what pitch is coming and it’s working out well for the righty so far.

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Stinnett’s had four save opportunities since moving into the closer spot. He only has four strikeouts in that time, but he has neither walked a batter nor allowed a hit and obviously held opponents scoreless.

Again, the key to Stinnett’s success is simply attacking each hitter and maintaining his composure. He needs to maintain that approach if he is going to succeed as the Smokies’ closer long-term. If he can continue to do what he is done over the last 10 days, he becomes quite the interesting prospect heading into 2019.

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