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Dissecting Caleb Kilian’s First MLB Start

Right-handed pitching prospect Caleb Kilian made his long awaited and highly anticipated debut in yesterday’s game. How did he look? Let’s dive in.

Caleb Kilian Cubs
Photo: Cubs/Twitter

The hype was real. Chicago Cubs fans from all over tuned in to watch the talented and highly touted 25-year-old pitching prospect. Thrown right into the fire of the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry and a nationally-televised game, we had no idea what to expect from the young pitcher. The results were somewhat of a mixed bag, but mostly positive. I got the chance to rewatch the game and make some notes. Let’s dive in. 

1st Inning 

  • What an absolutely electric start to the game. Kilian racked up back-to-back strikeouts to start his career.
  • After that, he got a weakly hit groundball out on the hottest hitter in baseball, Paul Goldschmidt. Andrelton Simmons made a nice play up the middle.
  • 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning.

2nd Inning 

  • Nolan Arenado (Errorenado) hit a weak chopper to the left side of the mound. Kilian made a nice play to get the out.
  • He got ahead 0-2 on the next batter Brendan Donovan, then got him to fly weakly to left field for an out (routine).
  • He followed that up with a weak chop to third by Harrison Bader for a groundout.
  • Nine-pitch, 1-2-3 inning. 

3rd Inning 

  • Disgusting 90 mph cutter/slider to strikeout Yadi Molina. 
  • Used the four-seam fastball to get Lars Nootbaar to flyout to LF (routine).
  • Fell behind Edmundo Sosa 2-0, then came back with three straight sinkers for strikes, one perfectly thrown low and in. Then the strikeout pitch got him looking (low and away paint job).
  • 11-pitch inning. 1-2-3 inning.

4th Inning 

Kilian took a perfect game into the 4th. 

  • Here’s where things got interesting. Kilian started to lose a little feel & velocity. He walked Tommy Edman to lead off the frame on four straight balls, sitting 91-92 MPH.
  • He got ahead in the count on Nolan Gorman and got him to inside out a FB down the left-field line, which became a routine fly out to Happ. One out.
  • You can’t miss your spots to Goldschmidt. Higgins was setting up low and in. It looked like Kilian missed his spot over the middle at the very top of the zone, the umpire gave it to him as a strike call. Then, the same thing, Higgins sets up off the inside low and in, but Kilian missed over the middle of the plate on a 93.9 MPH sinker. Goldy laced it up the middle for the Cardinals’ first hit of the game. 1st and 2nd with one out. 
  • Kilian nibbled vs Arenado and got some awkward check swings. But outside of the foul ball on the first pitch curveball from Kilian, Arenado was able to hold off and draw a five-pitch walk. Bases loaded with one out. 
  • Kilian got ahead in the count 0-2 vs Brendan Donovan on back-to-back sinkers. Then, he tried to bury a curveball, but bounced it too far over in the dirt. Higgins couldn’t make the block and a run came in to score. The game was tied at one. It was a tough pitch to block with that much spin and where it hit the dirt. Donovan doubled to left-center field off a lower part of the zone sinker that caught too much of the plate. Two runs scored. Cardinals led 3-1. 
  • With Harrison Bader up to bat, Donovan stole third base. Kilian kind of stopped paying attention to him on second base. Higgins didn’t have much of a shot to throw him out. Kilian got Bader to hit it on the ground to Andrelton Simmons at short who was playing in. Donovan tried to score, but Simmons threw him out. 92.3 MPH sinker on the inside. Still a 3-1 game. 
  • Next, Kilian got two strikes on Yadi, but Bader tried to steal second base. Higgins threw him out to end the inning. It was a great tag by Morel. Inning over. 30-pitch inning for Kilian. Two hits, two walks, a wild pitch, and three runs allowed. 

5th Inning 

  • Kilian used four different types of pitches to Yadi Molina and almost had him struck out on a nasty curveball in the dirt that Yadi barely nicked. He wound up needing nine pitches in total, but got Yadi to strikeout on an ugly swing over a 90.8 MPH cutter on the outside corner. One out. 
  • Kilian made some good pitches to Lars Nootbaar (Fake General Mills product) and appeared to have him struck out on a 96 MPH 4SFB at the knees, but it hit off Higgins’s glove and went to the backstop. Kilian and Higgins might have gotten crossed up on that one. Kilian wound up inducing a soft fly out to Heyward in RF on a sinker up in the zone. 
  • Next, a sinker down the middle got Sosa to beat one into the ground towards Morel – 64.9 MPH exit velocity, weakly hit. Tough play for Morel charging in, and he actually made it a close play because of his sick arm strength. An infield hit for Sosa. Runner on first with two outs. 
  • Kilian got ahead of Tommy Edman 1-2. He put him away with a backwards strikeout on a sick low and outside corner backdoor cutter (90.4 MPH). Inning over. 22-pitch inning for Kilian. One hit, no runs. 

Overall Pitch Usage 

  • Sinker: 43 pitches, 51.8% usage, 93.3 MPH average velocity
  • Cutter: 23 pitches, 27.7% usage, 89.4 MPH average velocity
  • 4SFB: 10 pitches, 12% usage, 95 MPH average velocity
  • Curveball: 7 pitches, 8.4% usage, 77.8 MPH average velocity

Most notably, Kilian evenly distributed his sinker against the lefty and righty batters – 22 vs. RHBs, 21 vs LHBs. However, he threw his cutter mainly to righties – 20 vs RHBs, 3 vs. LHBs. Dropping the cutter usage vs lefties meant more four-seam fastballs – 4 vs. RHBs, 6 vs. LHBs. 

Moving forward, I’d like to see if he increases his four-seam usage against righties while increasing his cutter against lefties. The cutter acts like a power slider, but it could be a nasty pitch barreling in on the hands of lefties with good placement. It’s hard to argue with the results. His cutter struck out three batters, the most of any pitch he threw, and it racked up a 42.9 percent whiff rate, which was 20.7 percent better than any of his other offerings. 

Positives

Kilian notched a strikeout on each of his four pitches. He collected six punchouts in total over his five innings pitched. As evidenced early on, Kilian was going to pound the Cardinals with that power sinker. It was his most used pitch, but also, the only pitch the Cardinals got a hit against. 

Kilian’s spin-based movement and observed movement were very different, which is a good thing and backs up what the eyes were telling us. As the Cardinals first went through their order, they seemed to be having trouble picking up the spin on the ball and identifying each of Kilian’s pitches.

Areas to Improve

Something to watch for moving forward is his meatball percentage. A meatball is an odd way of calling a pitch middle-middle of the zone. 9.6 percent of Kilian’s pitches were in the meatball area, which is 2.4 percent higher than the league average. Nonetheless, the Cardinals only swung at 62.5 percent of them, which is 13.5 percent below the league average. The thing to watch for is Kilian’s improvement in avoiding the meatball region, and the other team’s adjustment to swing at those pitches to take advantage of the poor placement. He was nearly flawless his first time through the order, but the second time gave him trouble, which is another spot he can learn from and work to improve.

Final Takeaways 

Kilian’s final line doesn’t look fantastic on paper – 5.0 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K (5.40 ERA). That said, the kid had a perfect game going into the 4th inning. The strikeout stuff was very apparent, and he even threw a season-high 83 pitches. He only reached 80 pitches once this season at Iowa on May 19

The underlying numbers were terrific. Kilian struck out 31.6 percent of batters while allowing only an 18.2 percent hard-hit rate, a .146 expected batting average against, and 1.40 expected ERA. Looking closer at his cutter, he had an average horizontal break of four inches. If those are his true numbers moving forward on that pitch, that would put his cutter as the tenth-best in baseball for average horizontal break, just under Walker Buehler and Corbin Burnes among qualified pitchers. Throwing it on average at 89.4 MPH also makes it one of the faster cutters in the league. 

On Sunday afternoon, we received word that Kilian was optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Heading back to Iowa isn’t a death sentence. Undoubtedly, Kilian will be back with the big league club sooner rather than later. As mentioned earlier, he still has some fine tuning to do in regards to his meatball percentage, execution, and pitch sequencing. Nothing bad was going to come of this start, even had he gotten blown up for 10 runs. It was a good opportunity for him to get a taste and gain some experience. Now, let’s hope he can make some minor adjustments and return dominant.

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