Three starts into his big-league career, Caleb Kilian is searching for answers.
For a pitcher who didn’t walk many batters in the minors since joining the Chicago Cubs organization last July, walks have plagued the rookie right-hander in his last two outings. Kilian’s big-league debut in early June provided excitement for Cubs fans who haven’t had much to cheer about this year.
Command problems derailed Kilian again Monday in a 12-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s super frustrating, actually, because I feel like I’m digging myself in a hole with walking people and getting behind in counts,” Kilian said. “I feel like it’s not far off. I feel like it’s close. And once it clicks, it’ll be a lot better.”
Kilian surrendered seven runs (five earned) and struck out three in 2⅓ innings, hurt by five walks and shaky defense.
“I do best when I am aggressive or have an aggressive mindset, but I still was trying to be too fine with my misses,” Kilian said. “Instead of missing in the zone when I was missing just away earlier and then getting behind in counts, the walks — I just hurt myself, you know?”
Too often Kilian threw noncompetitive pitches that were balls out of his hand.
Kilian is the first Cubs pitcher to walk at least five hitters in consecutive outings since Yu Darvish in May 2019. Kilian’s issues against the Pirates felt similar to his previous start Wednesday versus the San Diego Padres, in which he surrendered five runs and five walks in four innings.
“Just not like myself,” he said.
Before the blowout loss, Cubs manager David Ross indicated the focus between starts for Kilian was “cleaning up the consistency of his mechanics” so he could feel he’s able to move the ball in and out of the zone as he wants. Kilian mentioned doing drills that helped him get back into his legs and find better timing.
“We’ve got to give this kid a little bit of runway before we start changing too many things,” Ross said. “The more information we’re able to gather at this level and what he looks like, then we’ll be able to assess and continue to work start to start.”
Kilian, though, couldn’t harness what he found between outings. Afterward, he wasn’t sure what led him to get out of sync against the Pirates.
“If I knew I would have probably fixed it out there,” he said. “It kind of just got out of whack a little bit today and then it didn’t go too well.”
The Cubs, losers in 13 of their last 16 games, can give Kilian time to work through his command issues in the majors if they want. Ross recalled former teammate Jon Lester saying a pitcher will have five really good starts, five that stink and it comes down to the other 20 starts.
Only 33 of Kilian’s 66 pitches were strikes, including 14 foul balls and five balls in play that either scored a run or were not an out.
“I definitely would say the big leagues is different than the minor leagues for sure,” Ross said. “He’s got a long big-league career ahead of him and he’s a hard worker. He’ll go back to work.”
At some point, it might pay off for Kilian to implement the adjustments at Triple A, where there is less scrutiny, but right now there is an opportunity to work hands on with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and the big-league staff. Kilian is trying to learn as much as he can, from the trainers to the strength coaches, and soak it in.
“I’ve just been picking people’s brains,” Kilian said. “Maybe I’ve got too much going on in my head at the moment, but I think in the long run it’ll pay off.”