Coming in to 2013, there were ample questions about almost every position that the Cubs could field – most notably starting pitching.
This isn’t exactly a foreign concept for teams who are face deep in a rebuild and the Cubs front office has responded to these questions with a rather successful 2012 offseason, bolstering pitching talent. This talent has shone through in the likes of Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman, who was recently flipped to the Orioles as a trade leverage piece.
The largest gap in the Cubs rotation was addressed when RHP Matt Garza was dealt to the Texas Rangers with Carlos Villaneuva coming out of the bullpen and the addition of Chris Rusin from AAA Iowa. Both these moves made sense considering the Cubs’ current pieces and the pitching talent available without using options or making a trade.
Chris Rusin was able to make his second start of the season since July 2nd when he was roughed up by the Oakland A’s. There was a lot of doubt going in to the July 22nd game where Rusin was facing an Arizona Diamondbacks squad who boast some solid batting talent in their lineup.
Well, turns out Rusin pitched a 5 strong, surrendering only 2 hits, 2 earned, 2 walks and 4 Ks to earn the win and looked downright good in the process.
Rusin had batters chasing balls on both sides of the place, mixing speeds and attacking inside with the sinker on a lot of hitters. It came as a bit of a shock to me considering how frail he’s looked in the past but hey, credit earned where credit is due. He pitched a damned good game. (Note: Junior Lake was an animal that game, which helped boost Rusin to the win column as 5.0 IP isn’t usually enough to get the job done)
Rusin has done his fair share of bouncing around from AAA to the bigs in the last 2 years and can’t quite seem to find a landing pad. With the void in the Cubs’ starting rotation, could this be Rusin’s golden opportunity to remain a major leaguer? Let’s break this thing down a little further.
Rusin’s mix is interesting in the sense that he relies on what a lot of people call “fringe pitches”. Most pitchers coming up from the minors usually have a 4-seam fastball as their primary pitch as it’s easy to locate and tends to be a good baseline of their skills. However, Rusin takes that mentality and tosses out the window. His go to pitch is a sinker which clocks in at 89 mph and is thrown almost 1/3 of all his pitches. He then has a cutter (84 mph) and a 4-seam fastball (89mph).
Wait, his sinker and fastball are the same speed? What gives?
The mechanics of the sinker don’t exactly require the pitcher to throw it any less hard to have the “sink” effect, so by keeping his velocity at the same speed as his fastball, it adds an extra bit of guess work to the batter’s workload at the dish. A guy like Rusin won’t be blowing balls by any batters anytime soon, so he mitigates this by throwing lots of cutters. It’s all about keeping your opposition off balance and tweak their timing.
Rusin also throws a changeup at 80 mph but it’s rare. Arguably, he’s a three pitch player.
So considering his mix and experience in AAA (3.35 ERA in 18 starts/2013), could Rusin be a permanent player in the Cubs rotation going forward?
As of right now, I’m tempted to say no mostly because it’s way too early to pull the trigger on a guy like Rusin just yet. He’s skilled, has a very strong pitching IQ and tends to keep the ball low in the zone – all attributes that an MLB club will want. But considering his up and down nature as of right now, he still needs work to do before he can be a permanent fixture in the MLB.
Rusin’s time in Chicago has a lot to do with void in Cubs’ pitching talent, especially with the Scott Baker injury. He’s in Chicago gaining experience, getting comfortable and doing a pretty good job but can’t be trusted with the nod all the time. Developmentally, he’s well on his way but he needs more time before he can be considered for a permanent rotation spot.
One of the biggest issues with keeping Rusin in the bigs is his velocity. Really skilled hitters will read the sinker as it comes to the plate and will be able to square up his fastball if he misses his location. Rusin is an “all or nothing” kind of player right now, and if he is missing his spots, he’s going to be shelled. Refining this pitching style takes time and a lot of practice, both of which Rusin is putting in right now.
Keep an eye out for Rusin. The Cubs’ brass tend to have a taste for sinkerballers (Feldman being a prime example, as well as the Chris Volstad experiment) and could look use his low-zone dominance to produce effective outs. Ground balls are never a bad thing, especially when you have a system loaded with infielders like the Cubs do.