When Tony Cougoule joined the Chicago Cubs in 2020, the organization followed a clear goal.
Infuse the system with electric pitchers who possess quality stuff. Cougoule, High-A South Bend’s pitching coach, has seen firsthand this season the type of high-caliber pitchers who are making their journey through the Cubs farm system.
The organization’s development of the pitching infrastructure over the last few years has started to pay off through dynamic homegrown arms reaching the majors, notably evident the last two seasons.
“It’s just that time we’re in in the organization,” Cougoule recently told the Tribune. “It’s an exciting time for pitching development and for our department.”
Three of the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates reached the postseason this season — Low-A Myrtle Beach, South Bend and Double-A Tennessee — giving some of the franchise’s top prospects an opportunity to continue to learn how to win before they experience that level of pressure in the big leagues.
The South Bend team is particularly loaded, featuring nine of the Cubs’ top 30 prospects, including four of their best pitching prospects. Two others, left-handers Jordan Wicks and DJ Herz, also spent more than half the season at South Bend.
RHP Porter Hodge
Consistency has been a staple of Hodge’s success since a mid-July promotion to South Bend.
Hodge has allowed two runs or less in seven of his eight outings, and in the lone start outside of that qualifier, he surrendered three earned runs. Suppressing more contact and improving his walk rate from Low A to complement his 32.1 K% have been part of the 21-year-old’s formula for success.
Hodge’s other factor for his consistency?
“I call it ‘the dog mentality,’ ” he told the Tribune. “It’s helped me focus rather than taking a pitch here and there. Just always paying attention to every pitch and not letting off the gas.”
Hodge attributes this approach to him becoming more mentally aware during spring training. He started meditating and reading more books. Addressing the mental side has aided his great stuff. Hodge’s cutting fastball and sweeping slider play well off each other. He also mixes in a changeup, which he called a work in progress, to prevent hitters from sitting on his slider. Hodge, a 13th-round pick in 2019, is learning to pitch with his entire repertoire, including figuring out the best situations to incorporate his curveball.
“Porter is a guy that is going to find the answer that he needs — he’s not shy about communicating,” Cougoule said. “He wants to be great. It starts with what he did in the offseason. He looks like a different person just with his regiment and what he did in the weight room.
“His stuff has ticked up tremendously this year, so it’s like, how do I pitch with those new weapons? And the more he sees ‘I don’t have to pick around the zone, I can get in the strike zone,’ the sooner he’s going to know, ‘Hey, I can just go after guys.’ ”
RHP Luis Devers
Plenty of numbers illustrate how Devers has thrived since getting called up to South Bend in early July. An eye-popping 1.05 ERA in 11 games (eight starts). A 6.1 BB% and 24 K%. A career-best 0.799 WHIP.
Devers has put it all together at High A.
“He’s a pitcher in the highest sense,” Cougoule said. “The velocity is not going to overpower anybody. The breaking ball is not going to get a ton of swing and miss, but he’ll throw the changeup in any count. He’ll mix tempos, whether he’ll quick pitch out of the wind. He just has an elite feel for the strike zone.”
Devers’ fast arm action creates effective deception, even without elite fastball velocity. Cougoule believes Devers, 22, still could see added velocity as his body continues to mature and get stronger.
“He’s already pretty special,” Cougoule said. “He oozes confidence. And it’s funny because, again, when you see the starters that we send out there, if you just look at pure stuff, he may be on the bottom of that list. But I think from a confidence level and who he is and what he thinks himself, he’s probably at the top of the list. And that goes a long way to things you just can’t quantify in baseball.”
RHP Daniel Palencia
For Palencia, everything he wants to do on the mound comes back to confidence.
“You have to feel confident in every pitch,” Palencia told the Tribune.
Acquired from the Oakland Athletics in July 2021, Palencia is armed with a fastball that hits triple digits. He credits his fastball velocity to body control stemming from his offseason weight-room work in Venezuela.
“Being a pitcher is hard because you have to be strong but you have to be flexible,” Palencia said. “You have to find the right middle point between them.”
Cougoule described Palencia’s work ethic as “second to none,” and those behind-the-scenes efforts have helped him produce a stellar season. Cougoule pointed to a mechanical adjustment from Palencia that keeps him more patient with his lower half so his power can translate to the mound.
“You can see a little bit more of of concentration of getting into that back leg before he gets forward, that’s been a big move for him,” Cougoule said.
Palencia, 22, is a big arm with tantalizing potential. He finished the regular season on a high note, not allowing a run in five of his last six starts.
RHP Kohl Franklin
It’s all about innings for Franklin.
Staying healthy and gaining experience was the organization’s focus for the hard-throwing 23-year-old. Franklin entered the year having not pitched in a minor-league game since August 2019 because of the canceled 2020 season and an oblique injury that cost him all of last year. While Franklin’s numbers aren’t great (6.88 ERA and 1.630 WHIP in 23 starts), his 69⅓ innings for South Bend this year exceed his total from his first two minor-league seasons when he totaled 50⅔ innings between 2018-19.
“He set himself up for super-high expectations for what he did in spring training,” Cougoule noted. “He goes out there his first outing and he touches 100 mph and he dominates and you just think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be easy from here.’ But we all know this game is very, very difficult, especially when you take three years away from someone.”
Aside from the long layoff, Cougoule attributes some of Franklin’s numbers to bad luck, citing batted-ball data. Heading into 2023 with a full season of experience behind him, the Cubs expect more refinement and development of Franklin’s stuff.
“It’s easy to say with that stuff that he should dominate, but I think how he’s handled the year, learning to be a professional for a full season, learning how to get through a full season healthy, that’s invaluable experience,” Cougoule said. “Of course he wants to go out there and dominate, but he’s had some flashes.”