Over the past three full seasons, the Pac-12 has been defined by a dominant team. 2017 Oregon State and 2019 UCLA were among the best regular-season groups of the past decade. The standings were a little more jumbled in 2018, but Oregon State always looked like a potential juggernaut that year, and the Beavers had an incredible postseason that culminated in a national title.
In 2021, though, there are a handful of teams with a plausible claim as the best in the Pac-12. Chief among them is Oregon, who’s off to an 18-7 start (5-3 in conference play). They’ve already taken a pair of series from their rivals in Corvallis, swept a four-game set from a good UC Santa Barbara team, and taken two of three from Arizona State. (Their only series loss to date has been at the hands of Arizona).
One of the biggest reasons for Oregon’s success is the work of Saturday starter Cullen Kafka. A fourth-year junior, Kafka has been a well-known player for some time, but he’s now amidst a breakout season. In 40.1 innings across six starts, the right-hander has a 2.01 ERA with 58 strikeouts against 13 walks. He’s already tied his career high in punch outs (which he set over 67.1 innings in 2019), while his 2.9 BB/9 this year is far lower than the 4.73 BB/9 mark he’d compiled entering this season. Kafka’s newfound dominance has attracted the attention of scouts, with Baseball America recently adding him to their top 300 prospects for the upcoming draft.
In their writeup of Kafka, BA notes that “some scouts believe he has improved a slider that was previously more of a fringy offering.” Kafka concurs, pointing to improvement of his breaking ball as the biggest reason for his uptick in strikeouts. A tweak to his grip has helped the pitch unlock another level. That’s a fairly common event for pitchers, but Kafka’s new grip was spurred by a rather unconventional source: a kitchen accident.
“There’s actually a funny story behind it: I was cooking and burnt my thumb,” Kafka recalled. “I had a bullpen session the next day and it was really uncomfortable to throw by putting pressure on my thumb. So I kind of flared my thumb underneath (the ball) so I was kind of holding it on my joint. And it was way better! I could spin it way harder, it had later break, everything about it was just better.” His pitch metrics seem to support that conclusion. TrackMan data from Kafka’s start against ASU last month (in which he struck out eleven over seven scoreless innings) suggest he’s averaging nearly two inches more induced vertical break on his slider than he had been in 2020.
Working with a better breaking ball can certainly explain an improvement in Kafka’s strikeout rate. Indirectly, it’s also a big reason for his ability to avoid free passes this year. “Mentality, confidence and competitiveness makes it easier to go after batters,” he pointed out. Kafka also made some mechanical changes to get a little more rhythm in his delivery, but it seems the biggest reason for his improved strike-throwing is a greater willingness to trust his stuff in and around the zone.
One pitch the righty hasn’t completely come around on, though, is the changeup. It’s his sparingly-used third offering, one Kafka admits is “like 50-50 on whether it’s going to be a good pitch or not.” Developing a reliable changeup could determine whether Kafka’s able to stick as a starting pitcher in pro ball. He’s not unaware of the next developmental hurdle, noting he has an informal goal to progressively throw one extra changeup in each start and has worked on it extensively in recent offseasons. Still, it’s difficult to fault Kafka for leaning heavily on his fastball and slider during games so long as he’s having immense success.
Kafka continuing to shove every Saturday night should give Oregon an opportunity to win most of their weekend series. The Ducks are building quite the tournament resume, too, with Baseball America’s most recent projected field of 64 placing them right on the hosting bubble. A Eugene regional wasn’t an outcome many observers expected coming into the year, but it’s a distinct possibility now, thanks in part to a pitcher burning his thumb.
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