Cubs can’t count on Duane Underwood Jr. to be a major contributor

Rather than as an answer for the Cubs, Duane Underwood Jr. was a major issue.

One of the most glaring shortcomings of the Theo Epstein regime has been an inability to develop homegrown pitching. The Chicago Cubs have instead had to rely on free agent signings and trades to piece together a pitching staff around their core of position players.

That’s not for a lack of trying. One such example is right-hander Duane Underwood Jr., the team’s second-round pick from the 2012 draft. Chicago selected him straight out of high school, hoping for a big arm that could play a key role as the team turned the corner and became a contender.

Here’s just a bit of what Baseball America (subscription required) had to say about the Raleigh, NC native heading into the draft:

His mechanics are sound, though at times he loses his tempo and rushes his delivery. Scouts also want to see him handle adversity better.

After spending six years in the farm system, Underwood Jr. made his big league debut back in 2018. After getting a cup of coffee with Chicago in both 2018 and 2019, he got a longer look this year under first-year manager David Ross – to less-than-ideal results.

In 20 2/3 innings of work, he allowed 13 runs on 25 hits and six walks. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was excellent (4.50) as was his strikeout rate (11.8 K/9). These surface-level numbers paint a blurry picture – but his 5.66 ERA and 4.74 FIP certainly seem to sour on his performance.

So, I decided to dig in a little deeper to see what the full story is on Underwood Jr. and what he can or cannot offer the team moving forward. With a ton of arms hitting free agency, including Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana, there are questions – and the Cubs need answers in a hurry.

Opponents hit .313 against the right-hander this year. That’s not a great start. But his 33.1 percent chase rate ranked second among all Cubs pitchers – and speaks to his high strikeout rate. The problem comes in when hitters did make contact. He was well below league average in terms of both barrel percentage and solid contact rate.

He allowed line drives at a rate 10 percent higher than the MLB average and his average exit velocity ranked in the bottom two percent of qualified big league pitchers. So what does all this tell us? To be honest, it’s hard to say – but one thing that seems safe to assume is Underwood Jr. – while promising – is not a sure thing when looking at the team’s 2021 plans.

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There’s plenty of intrigue given some of the numbers I mentioned – namely his control and strikeout rate – but he’ll need to learn to limit hard contact and miss some more barrels before Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy start penciling him into a set role.