Estrada’s success in San Diego extends curse of Cubs closers

The Cubs have done a nice job with development and acquisition of starting pitchers, correcting a longtime franchise flaw.

Constructing a closer, or even bullpen depth, remains strangely out of reach.

There are long lists of potential Cubs closers who didn't work out due to injuries or whatever (Codi Heuer, Brailyn Marquez, Ben Leeper, Manny Rodriguez, Burl Carraway to name a few).

There's another list of relievers who found success after leaving the Cubs (Trevor Megill, Jason Adam, Alex Lange, Bryan Hudson).

San Diego Padres relief pitcher Jeremiah Estrada works agianst a Miami Marlins batter during the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in San Diego. Estrada extended his club-record strikeout streak to 13 straight batters, the most in the expansion era. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) AP

But Jeremiah Estrada has taken the Cubs' closer curse to new levels. Now with San Diego, Estrada made history this week by striking out 13 consecutive batters — all swinging — reportedly the first pitcher to do that since at least 1961.

Yes, this is the same guy who was drafted by the Cubs, thought to be a potential closer of the future, but posted a 6.75 ERA in 12 big-league appearances last season. It's fairly routine in MLB for teams to move some guys off the 40-man roster after the season to make room for others. When the Cubs tried that with Estrada last November, the Padres claimed him off waivers.

This season he has an 0.55 ERA, 28 strikeouts in 16 innings, and leads the majors in opponent batting average (.093), mostly by mixing a rising fastball with a split finger pitch, which he didn't have last season.

Estrada, 25, explained his process to reporters in San Diego. He started by watching videos, then tried to mimic a pitch thrown by former Dodger Trevor Bauer and failed but adjusted his grip until he found something that works. Estrada called it a split circle change, or “chitter.”

Whatever it is, the Cubs wish he was having this success at Wrigley Field. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer talked about the Cubs' struggle to develop relievers last week.

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Jeremiah Estrada looks down after Cincinnati Reds' Nick Senzel walked to first base during the fifth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) AP

“You're never going to buy a bullpen,” he said. “When you have to put a lot of money into the bullpen, it's not a good solution, as you have seen with other teams over and over. So this is a scenario we have to keep grinding on.

“I'd love nothing more than to have a homegrown bullpen at some point where you feel like you've got guys with real stuff coming out of the bullpen every night. That's something we'll just keep working toward.”

Brown throws a curve:

The Cubs do have a significant success story in pitching development with Ben Brown's curveball.

While tossing seven no-hit innings against the Brewers on Tuesday, Brown used just two pitches — the fastball, which averaged 97 mph, and a curve. According to StatCast, it's been the most effective curveball in MLB this season.

During the winter, Brown worked with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy on refining his pitch mix. They decided to simplify, eliminated a couple pitches and made the curveball his secondary weapon. StatCast calls it a knuckle curve, since he does keep one knuckle on the ball. But it's one of the highest-velocity curves in baseball, at 86.5 mph.

“I say this a lot: Hitters don't like things they don't see,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “So this is a pitch with the characteristics of a curveball and the velocity of some guys' sliders, which moves a little more east-west.

“Maybe a 'slurve' is the right word. It's a hard curveball and it's a pitch not many other guys throw. They don't throw it like a curveball at that velocity and that makes it difficult for hitters to react to it, to calibrate to it. It's one of the things that makes Ben unique, for sure.”

According to StatCast, the Cubs have three of the top 25 most effective pitches in MLB this season — Shota Imanaga's fastball, Javier Assad's sinker and Brown's curve.

Over his last 14 innings pitched, Brown has allowed no runs and just 3 hits, with 20 strikeouts.

Around the horn:

To follow up on last week's baseball column, Barrington's Ryan Loutos has yet to make a mound appearance for St. Louis, after being called up last week. Cardinals Twitter is getting antsy, needless to say. … Cubs top pitching prospect Cade Horton left the mound with lat soreness after working one inning for Iowa on Wednesday. The Cubs say he is getting checked out in Chicago. …

Former Cardinals first-round pick Jake Woodford became the 10th pitcher to start for the White Sox this season in just 56 games. Garrett Crochet (12 starts), Erick Fedde (11) and Chris Flexen (10) have been the mainstays. …

As the White Sox completed the first 0-7 home stand in franchise history, manager Pedro Grifol had this to say about Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: “I feel fortunate that we work for an owner like Jerry. He's been in this game for whatever, 44, 45 years and he's a baseball guy. I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to work for him and represent this uniform with them. I'm grateful to be here.”

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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