Rowan Wick has a short, quick arm and plus velocity. He also has a good backstory. The 26-year-old right-hander didn’t begin pitching until 2015, three years after he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Four years and two organizations later, he’s currently competing for a spot in the Cubs bullpen. Chicago’s North Side club acquired Wick from San Diego over the offseason in exchange for Jason Vosler.
A lack of power isn’t why he failed to make the grade as a position player. The problem was contact. In 2014, Wick swatted 20 home runs in just 298 plate appearances between short-season State College and Low-A Peoria, but he also fanned 94 times. He then ventured even further into blind-squirrel territory the following year. Prior to being converted, Wick went down by way of the K a staggering 50 times in just 133 plate appearances.
Midway through May of that 2015 season, Wick was informed that he would henceforth be standing on a bump. Given his travails with the stick, he was in no position to argue.
“When they told me I was going to pitch, it was kind of, ‘OK, this is my last shot,’” Wick recalled thinking. “At that point, you’ve got to buy in, right? I’d started as a catcher, then went to the outfield, and now I was a pitcher. After that, you really can’t make any more moves. It was either pitch or go home.”
The North Vancouver, British Columbia native spent the rest of the season in Florida, familiarizing himself with his new endeavor in extended spring training and the Gulf Coast League. Competitive innings were scarce — he threw just two — as the lion’s share of his time was devoted to “learning the mound, learning to throw off-speed pitches.”
Despite having a strong right arm, Wick had scant familiarity with a mound. He’d pitched in Little League, but as he put it, “I was 11, 12 years old. That was a long time ago.”
Fast forward to last summer. Following a strong showing at Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso, Wick got his first big-league call-up on the final day of August. The experience was in turns grueling and scintillating.
“The whole thing was crazy,” said Wick. “I woke up in Fresno, flew back to El Paso with the team via Phoenix, and while I was waiting for my bag at the airport, Rod Barajas told me I was going up. I then flew to San Diego, again through Phoenix, and landed about 20 minutes before game time. They picked me up, and as soon as I got to [Petco Park], I had to rush out to the bullpen.”
Come the ninth inning, he was rushing out of the bullpen and onto a big-league mound. With the Padres holding a healthy 7-0 lead over the Colorado Rockies, Wick entered the game and promptly retired David Dahl, Ryan McMahon, and Chris Iannetta in order. Looking back, the righty is glad that his debut came as quickly as it did.
“There was no time to think,” explained Wick. “I got there, then I pitched. There were definitely emotions. I was super stoked.”
He threw just eight pitches that night, five of them fastballs. A mid-90s heater that he likes to work up in the zone is his bread and butter. Primarily a two-pitch pitcher, Wick flashes a plus curveball, and on rare occasion he’ll throw a cutter. His arsenal is sans a changeup.
His arm path, highly influenced by his position-player background, stands out.
“He has one of the shortest, quickest arms I’ve ever seen,” said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. “He’s got good velocity, high spin, and that short, quick arm. His ball kind of jumps on you. His 95 [mph] gets on you more than a normal 95. He’s a strong, explosive kid. It’s fun to watch him throw.”
According to Hottovy, Wick needs to develop more consistency in his delivery. Much like pitchers with long arm paths will sometimes struggle with timing, pitchers with especially short paths can experience the same issues. As Hottovy explained, “You want to be short and compact, but you don’t want to be too short to where you don’t give your arm time to get up.”
The position-player-turned-pitcher is in good company when it comes to short-arm motions. Hottovy cited highly regarded prospect Adbert Alzolay as a good example, calling him “really clean and compact.” And then there’s Yu Darvish.
“When Darvish is right, he looks like he goes right to his hip pocket, right to his ear,” said Hottovy. “Then it’s on you. Wick is similar in that respect.”
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.