Sunday Notes: Rowan Wick Was a Good Story Out of the Cubs Bullpen

Two spring trainings ago I was at the Padres complex in Peoria, Arizona, chatting with Dave Cameron. The longtime FanGraphs frontman had recently joined the NL West club as an analyst, and he had a suggestion. “You should talk to Rowan Wick,” Cameron said of the non-roster invitee whom San Diego had claimed off waivers the previous month. “He’s a good story.”

Indeed he was. Wick entered pro ball as a catcher in 2012, converted to the mound in 2015, and possessed what was later described to me as “one of the shortest, quickest arms I’ve ever seen.” He’d had yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues.

I didn’t get a chance to talk to Wick before departing Arizona, but I remembered Cameron’s suggestion when I returned to the Cactus League this past spring. The right-hander — now with eight-and-a-third MLB innings on his resume — was in camp with the Cubs, a long shot to make the team. A full year after having the bug put in my ear, I wrote about the 26-year-old hurler from North Vancouver, British Columbia.

He proceeded to outperform all expectations. The bulk of his big-league action coming since mid-June, Wick logged a 2.43 ERA and a 2.82 FIP in 31 games out of the Chicago bullpen. Those weren’t even his most-impressive numbers. Opposing hitters slashed a paltry .183/.295/.233 against his overpowering arsenal — one which included a retooled secondary offering.

Wick pointed to just that when asked to explain his breakout campaign.

“Working with [pitching coach] Tommy Hottovy has been big, and there’s also the new grip on my curveball,” Wick told me in the waning days of the season. “We worked on it in the lab this spring. Pretty much right from the get-go it was, ‘Come in here and we’ll see what we can do to can make this better.’ Spiking it has really helped me.”

Hottovy had predictable praise for the righty, and not just for his improved hook and the mid-90s heater he tunnels it off of.

“For me, one of the biggest things in his transformation was the confidence,” Hottovy said. “That’s in any situation we put him in. A lot of guys who come up feel pressure, while others thrive, and he really wants to be in the game. High-leverage doesn’t bother him. He just goes out there and pitches.”

Wick was certainly no candle in the wind. In plate appearances categorized as late-and-close, opposing batters went 5 for 63, and punched out 22 times.

Joe Maddon, whose appellation is now “ex-Cubs manager,” wasn’t expecting Wick to be a reliable back-end reliever. He admitted as much when I queried him on the subject days before his mutual-decision dismissal.

“I can’t say I knew that,” Maddon told me. “There’s a lot to like about him, but what he’s doing right now is… I don’t think ‘exceeding expectations’ is the right way to say it. It’s more like ‘accelerated expectations.’ He’s taken to it so much more quickly, and against really good competition in the latter parts of game. He’s pretty much nailed it down.”

The pitcher himself isn’t taking anything for granted. Standing in front of his locker as the Cubs sat at the precipice of elimination, Wick shook his head side to side when asked if he’s now an established big-leaguer.

“No,” said Wick. “The game is always adjusting to you. I have to come back next year and prove myself again. That’s always going to be the case.”

——

Hunter Harvey started throwing a curveball in his freshman year of high school. It’s of the spiked variety, and the fact that he learned it from his father is both predictable and surprising. Bryan Harvey pitched in the big leagues from 1987-1995, but his repertoire was strictly fastball/splitter. The former All-Star closer didn’t have an in-game relationship with Uncle Charlie.

Harvey’s hook is both hard and slurvy, and at times he’ll trade in some of the sweep for more slider-like action. He also features a four-seam fastball that averaged 98.5 mph in a smattering of innings out of the Orioles bullpen last month. And then there’s the other pitch in his arsenal.

Harvey’s father also taught him his splitter, although it wasn’t introduced to the youngsters repertoire until this season. An array of injuries is the main reason why. The 24-year-old right-hander has spent more time on the shelf than on a mound since he was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft out of a North Carolina high school.

Given a medical history that includes Tommy John surgery, Harvey’s adding a pitch not known to be healthy for arms isn’t necessarily a safe proposition. If he’s concerned, he’s not admitting it.

“It’s a little tough on the forearm, splitting it and throwing it as hard as I do,” acknowledged Harvey. “But now it’s all good, because I’m bigger and stronger. My dad and I talked about [throwing a splitter[ the last couple of years, but with all my injuries I hadn’t started throwing it yet. This past season I was healthy, so I have.”

While father and son talk pitching frequently, parental guidance no longer comes clothed with the tools of ignorance. Not at age 56 when your progeny is touching 100. “He can’t catch me anymore,” explained Harvey. “But just from watching he can tell if I’m staying behind the ball, or getting around it and not finishing.”

There’s no doubting the stuff. For Bryan Harvey’s son, it’s been a matter of being healthy enough to take advantage of it.

——

Theo Epstein shared some interesting thoughts about players’ daytime routines on the road when the Cubs visited Pittsburgh in late September. The subject came up shortly after Joe Maddon brought up the idea while speaking to a group of reporters.

“There are players who, for different reasons, make a habit of staying in their hotel rooms the entire day, then take the late bus to the ballpark,” said Epstein. “I think it’s valid to look at that and urge players to get out and do stuff. We have players who do go out, and have healthy hobbies, so it’s not true across the board, but compared to 10-20 years ago there are more guys in their rooms over the course of the day — technology, less face-to-face interaction, and more texting.”

Should players maybe go out for a drink more often? (Yes, this was a Maddon suggestion.) While not necessarily the healthiest practice, doing so might dispel any doldrums and actually help on-field performance.

“I have a few thoughts on that,” said Epstein. “My first thought — and I ran this by Joe — is, ‘I’m not sure if that theory is worth anything, but why don’t the two of us go test it out tonight?’”

——

RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Joe Judge went 6 for 6 against Johnny Miljus.

Johnny Grubb went 6 for 6 against Chuck Rainey.

Max Alvis went 6 for 6 against Dick Drago.

Andre Dawson went 6 for 6 against Roy Thomas.

Dave Parker went 6 for 6 against Greg Maddux.

——

Cody Stashak put up some pretty remarkable numbers this season. The fact that some of them came in a Minnesota Twins uniform is especially remarkable. The 25-year-right-hander began the year in Double-A Pensacola, and as a former 13th-round draft pick he wasn’t exactly a top-shelf prospect.

What Stashak did is attack the strike zone with aplomb. Called up in late July, the St. John’s University product struck out 25 batters, and walked just one, in 25 innings out of the Minnesota bullpen. Counting his time in Pensacola and Triple-A Rochester, he fanned 99 and walked 10.

When I talked to Stashak earlier this week, he had a straightforward answer regarding his K/BB rate and unexpected level of success.

“I pounded the zone,” said Shasak. “Pitching is tough when you don’t throw strikes. That’s something I kind of stand behind. I’d rather give up a hit than walk somebody. I don’t like giving up free passes.”

Stashak allowed 29 hits in his 25 big-league innings. He had a 3.24 ERA and a 3.01 FIP.

——

Sticking with the Twins, I was part of a small scrum asking questions to Tyler Duffey following Minnesota’s Game 3 loss to New York. Some of his responses were pure gold. How fans at Yankee Stadium treat opposing players was one of the subjects he addressed.

“There were a lot of expletives,” said Duffey. “You hear, ‘Your mother.’ ‘Your daughter.’ Your whoever. Someone told me they’re going to do something to my wife while we were in New York. They get their money’s worth. But I look for it, too. You smile at people and they hate you.”

Asked how Fenway Park compares, he responded that “Boston is fun. They’re baseball fans. Yankee fans just hate people.”

Duffey pitched poorly in the ALDS, allowing four runs in just an inning and a third. How does he expected to respond the next time he’s thrust into the postseason spotlight?

“I think it will feel even more like just a baseball game,” responded the reliever. “The moment will get smaller. ‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable’ is something LaTroy Hawkins has said. There’s no truer statement than that in those moments.”

Regarding the rest of the postseason, I asked Duffey if he’ll be watching now that his team has been eliminated.

“I always end up watching something,” he said. “I won’t be setting an alarm, but I’m sure my TV will end up on some baseball games. I’ll probably have it on in the background while I’m cooking dinner, and stuff like that. I won’t be sitting on the edge of my seat. I hope.”

——

Jorge Lopez throws a lot of curveballs. The Kansas City Royals right-hander relied on the pitch 31.8% of the time this year. Not that his overall numbers were rosy, mind you. In 123-and-two-thirds innings spread out over 39 appearances, he had a 6.33 ERA and a 5.55 FIP.

Lopez learned what he refers to as his “knuckle curve” around the age of 15. Prior to that he was primarily a shortstop and an outfielder in his native Puerto Rico. Back in August, the now 26-year-old told me that developing a solid secondary pitch was a process. As he put it, “At first I was more like a throwing guy; I had to learn how to pitch.”

Development aside, it’s largely the same curveball he threw at Caguas Military Academy, where he attended high school.

“I grab it like a spike and try to have good arm speed,” Lopez explained. “I have the pressure on my middle finger, and my [pointer] finger is kind of… I don’t know how to say it. More in the air? It’s out of the way so I can have the pressure on my middle finger to create that spin.”

——

Early this season I asked Pirates GM Neal Huntington if he could put on a pitching coach hat and address the relative importance of spin rate in the scouting process. This was his response:

All [aspects] are important. It’s one thing to have a dominant spin rate, it’s another thing to not be able to land it for a strike, or to have it have a trackable path. There’s also deception. So, it’s an important part of the process, but it’s not the only component as we evaluate a pitch.”

——

Phillies managing partner John Middleton reportedly overruled team president Andy McPhail and GM Matt Klentak with the firing of manager Gabe Kapler. Moreover, Middleton admitted that public opinion factored into his decision.

Middleton proved to be a good businessman in the tobacco industry. As for his acumen within the business of baseball… let’s just say the above decisions are highly questionable.

And then there is the eye-rolling news that Curt Schilling has expressed interest in replacing Kapler as Philadelphia’s manager. The former pitcher reportedly also has his eyes on Boston’s vacancy at the pitching coach position. OK then.

Look, Schilling has every right to pursue whatever job he wants. This is a free country and his bona fides as a cerebral pitcher are unquestioned. Even so, his chances of being hired for either of those positions are remote at best. Both roles require respect, and this is a man who, along with having uttered multiple contentious opinions, retweeted “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Is there a more-polarizing former player associated with the game of baseball? It’s hard to imagine any team associating itself with Curt Schilling.

——

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At FiveThirtyEight, old friend Travis Sawchik wrote about how Gerrit Cole went from so-so to un-hittable.

Steve Stone wants to renew his contract as White Sox TV analyst, and Phil Rosenthal wrote about Stone’s status for The Chicago Tribune.

Sticking with the South Side, is Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo the left-handed hitter the White Sox need? Vinne Duber delved into that possibility at NBC Sports Chicago.

Baseball America’s Bill Mitchell gave us a rundown of the Top 20 prospects in the rookie-level Arizona League this past season.

Over at Cooperstown Cred, Chris Bodig opined that we should forget about Koufax comps, as Clayton Kershaw is headed for the Hall of Fame.

———

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Yankees hit 306 home runs and 290 doubles this year. They were the only team with more bombs than two-baggers.

The Pirates hit 315 doubles and 163 home runs. The Twins hit 318 doubles and 307 home runs.

The Pirates and White Sox each hit 981 singles, the most of any team. The Blue Jays hit 761 singles, the fewest of any team.

Rougned Odor had 46 singles and 61 extra base hits.

Nicholas Castellanos hit an MLB-best 58 doubles. Kyle Schwarber and Christian Yelich combined to hit 58 doubles.

Blake Snell has two HBPs in 506 career innings. Charlie Morton has 41 HBPs over his last 506 innings.

Albert Pujols is 222 RBIs short of Hank Aaron’s all-time record of 2,297.

Bill Mazeroski hit his historic World Series Game 7 home run on this date in 1960. Maz’s walk-off blast, which cleared the left field wall at Forbes Field, at 3:36 in the afternoon, gave the Pirates a 10-9 win over the Yankees.

The first night game in World Series history was played on this date in 1971, with the Pirates beating the Orioles 4-3 at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. The last World Series afternoon game was played on October 24, 1987, with the Twins beating the Cardinals 11-5 at the Metrodome.

Horace Speed, and outfielder for the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians from 1975-1978, had four career stolen bases in nine attempts.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Rowan Wick Was a Good Story Out of the Cubs Bullpen by David Laurila!

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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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cubsker
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cubsker

Too bad Joe didn’t realize Wick was his best reliever

Alfrs
Member
Alfrs

This is just incredibly wrong. From the time he was called back up for good, he spent MAYBE a week not pitching in high leverage spots. Eventually being relegated to specifically just the 8th/9th. Wick’s 2 worst outings were due to the defense coming unglued against Philly and the Nats. Both times he shouldn’t have been pulled. Other than that Wick was leaned upon.