Cubs Prospect Caleb Kilian Has Begun to Command Our Attention

Caleb Kilian made giant strides in 2021. Unranked as a San Francisco prospect at season’s start, the 24-year-old right-hander now profiles as one of the most promising arms in the Chicago Cubs system. The NL Central club acquired Kilian, along with outfielder Alexander Canario, in exchange for free-agent-to-be Kris Bryant at the July trade deadline.

The degree to which Kilian stepped up this year is apparent in his numbers. Pitching almost exclusively at the Double-A level, the 2019 eighth-round pick out of Texas Tech University put up a 2.42 ERA while allowing just 75 hits and 13 walks in 101 1/3 innings. Augmenting his signature plus command with increased velocity and an improved pitch mix, he punched out 112 batters.

Kilian’s repertoire revolves around a sinker and a cutter, the latter of which he began developing in the rookie-level Arizona League.

“It was early, almost right when I got there,” explained Kilian, who had pitched in a pair of College World Series with the Red Raiders. “When I got to pro ball, my slider was kind of just a worse curveball, so the Giants recommended a cutter. That way, I’d basically be throwing what felt like a fastball — same arm speed, just a different grip. I supinate with the ball anyway, so by turning it in my hand, it kind of just comes out naturally with cut.”

Kilian credits his cutter for improved effectiveness against lefties, as the horizontal movement he gets with it — typically toward the inside corner — serves as a good complement to the down-and-away action of his sinker.

He also throws a four-seamer — a pitch he hopes to incorporate more frequently going forward — but much like the cutter, it’s not his bread-and-butter. That would be his sinker, which he grips differently than your conventional two-seam fastball.

“It’s actually a one-seam,” said Kilian, who was playing for the Arizona Fall League’s Mesa Solar Sox when he spoke with FanGraphs. “I learned it right when I got to college, and it was huge for me there. I got a lot of groundballs — I’ve kind of been a ground-ball pitcher — and it’s continued to develop. It’s gotten better. I think these big-league balls even make it move a little bit more.”

Asked what he’s done to further fine-tune the pitch, the erstwhile Flower Mound, Texas prep pointed to a subtle change in finger placement. Explaining the tweak without a ball in hand, Kilian shared that he’s “kind of crept up on it to split the seams better, which I don’t think I’d been doing that effectively.”

A more pronounced grip change is being introduced to yet another weapon in his arsenal. Per the recommendation of Cubs pitching coordinator Casey Jacobsen, the youngster began working on a spiked curveball during his Fall League stint. The early returns have been positive. In Kilian’s opinion, the new version is already better than his old, “normal curveball.”

Most importantly, Kilian’s overall developmental strides have been exponentially better. When he started for Mesa in last month’s Fall League championship game, he did so as a pitcher very much on the rise. And his shooting star status only grew with that outing. Topping out at 98 mph, and adroitly mixing in high-80s cutters and mid-70s curveballs, Kilian threw six perfect innings with eight strikeouts. His twice-through-the-order carving up of the Surprise Saguaros lineup came on just 68 pitches.

Nine months after failing to make the cut in our 2021 Giants rankings, the 6-foot-4 right-hander is no longer flying below the radar. Following a breakout season that saw him change organizations and not miss a beat — he simply continued to get better — Kilian comes in at No. 7 on our newly-released Chicago Cubs Top Prospects list.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Tyson Wirth
2 years ago

Killian ’em with kindn… spiked curves!