You wouldn’t know it from the headlines these days, but the Cubs do actually have players in their organization already and there’s development taking place even as rumors consume most of the available content oxygen. Some of their prospects will dictate what the front office does this winter, whether it’s finding a stopgap in center until Pete Crow-Armstrong is ready or making sure the rotation is flexible enough to accommodate one of several young starters.
Though I’m sure more than one potential reader saw the topic and dismissed it with a pejorative motion befitting the title, the changes Ryan Jensen has made to his pitching mechanics are legit. The Cubs’ first-round pick in 2019, Jensen got by with a big sinker that neared triple digits and a power slider with a softer curveball to get whiffs. His problem was that his control was spotty due to a funky motion that was all arms and legs.
The hallmark of his delivery was an incredibly long arm stroke that saw him nearly graze the rubber with the ball as he created a huge loop. That big movement made the move difficult to repeat and only Jensen’s superior athleticism allowed him to wrangle it enough to allow him to be effective in the minors. Because that wasn’t going to be good enough to get him to Chicago, the Cubs put Jensen on the development list for about a month in the middle of the season.
North Side Bound’s Greg Huss detailed the changes to Jensen’s mechanics in one of his last pieces for CI, noting how the shorter arm stroke led to improved control. After throwing just 16.1 innings with a 5.51 ERA, 18 strikeouts, and 14 walks through his first five starts, the Cubs had seen enough to know something had to change. So Jensen went to the dev list on May 4 and he didn’t return until June 14.
While the results weren’t revelatory, Jensen lowered his season ERA to 4.25 over the course of 12 more starts, striking out 42 with 25 walks over 43 innings. That 5.23 BB/9 still wasn’t anywhere close to outstanding, but it was nearly two walks below his previous mark and you have to give more than a little grace to someone making a big change like that mid-season.
Jensen’s apparently not done honing his delivery either, as Huss showed in a tweet that compares videos from May 4, September 1 (the last start of the season), and Friday.
Video 1: Ryan Jensen on May 4th
Video 2: Ryan Jensen on September 1st
Video 3: Ryan Jensen today pic.twitter.com/W7rmk8YvZc
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) November 26, 2022
The easiest comp here is Lucas Giolito, who similarly overhauled his mechanics to adopt an inside route — or short-arm in popular nomenclature — following his disastrous 2018 campaign. The similarities are greater in the most recent video of Jensen, though I still prefer to connect the dots to a pitcher whose delivery looks nothing at all like what we see above.
Just a few years ago, the Cubs had another righty in Double-A who was getting decent results with the same mechanics he’d had his whole career. However, the organization felt he’d plateaued and they told him as much, adding that taking some time off to work on a new delivery was his best option to continue pitching professionally. So on June 14, 2019 — three years to the day of Jensen’s return — Scott Effross headed to Mesa to learn to throw sidearm.
That change resulted in a fringy relief prospect becoming one of the Cubs’ most reliable bullpen arms and being valuable enough to net Hayden Wesneski from the Yankees. Unfortunately, Effross ended up missing the postseason due to an elbow injury that required surgery, but he says his recovery is going well and I’m sure he’ll be back to shoving in New York after next season.
Though Jensen and Effross couldn’t be more different stylistically, the philosophical fingerprints of their changes are nearly identical. This is a matter of the Cubs finding a way to unlock potential that might otherwise have remained untapped, and it’s pretty obvious they believe Jensen can take a big step forward next season after getting more reps.
Other organizations believe it as well, or Jensen wouldn’t have been added to the 40-man. We could even see him in Chicago this season, possibly in a relief role or as a spot/piggyback starter for half of a doubleheader. Jensen made only two starts of as many as five innings this past season and 10 of his 17 total starts lasted fewer than four frames, so he strikes me as someone who fits really well with what could be an evolving strategy.
We’ll have to wait a while to see exactly how this all plays out, but it’s encouraging to see how the Cubs’ development pipeline is working behind the scenes. Now they just need to spend some money to make sure these prospects don’t have to carry the load all by themselves.