Why rookie Jordan Wicks is so calm in the middle of this big Cubs moment 

As part of Jordan Wicks’ routine at Kansas State, he regularly met with the coaching staff to compare scouting reports, analyze hitters and exchange ideas about how to beat the next opponent. In Pete Hughes’ decades running college baseball programs, he’d never had a pitcher who was that involved in the game-planning process, the Kansas State head coach recalled after the Chicago Cubs made Wicks their first-round pick in 2021. This is the opposite of “fake it until you make it.”

Wicks is supposed to be good. Otherwise, the Cubs wouldn’t have given him a $3.1 million signing bonus. The Cubs executive who ran that draft, Dan Kantrovitz, worked for the St. Louis Cardinals when they selected a Texas A&M pitcher in a similar range of the 2012 MLB Draft, then watched Michael Wacha play in the 2013 World Series.

It’s also not supposed to be that easy. There are separators and intangibles when a prospect begins the season at Double-A Tennessee and the Cubs go 4-0 in his first four major-league starts. Wicks forced his way into the National League playoff race with the maturity and professionalism that he demonstrated at Kansas State.

“We would meet the Thursday before the series,” Wicks said. “We would talk over what I saw on video and how we wanted to attack guys, sequence-wise. That’s really where I learned a lot of my film study and stuff like that. It’s being able to read swings and see what guys handle well, what they don’t and know what their swing type is. That really prepared me a lot for this level.”

There is something bigger going on here when Justin Steele is a leading candidate for a Cy Young Award, Wicks and Javier Assad appear to be locks for a potential playoff roster and Cade Horton is already at the Double-A level and viewed as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

USATSI 21357878 scaled

Daniel Palencia sprays Jordan Wicks with water after the Cubs beat the Giants on Sept. 6. (Matt Marton / USA Today)

During their last competitive window, the Cubs did not have a homegrown pitcher throw a single pitch in a playoff game. That covers postseason appearances in five of six seasons — 10 playoff rounds between 2015 and 2020 — without using a pitcher signed through the draft or the international development pipeline.

Of course, there is no asterisk attached to the 2016 World Series flag. The Cubs obviously did so many things right during that time and fundamentally changed the expectations at Wrigley Field. But without a supply of inexpensive, in-house pitching talent, the Cubs were constantly forced to pay the price by making short-term trades and signing free agents to fill even the basic roles on a pitching staff. All those choices came to a head near the end of the 2019 season when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer re-examined baseball operations and went through with a massive shakeup.

It’s interesting to read about the free-spending New York Mets launching their own pitch lab, more than four years after The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma uncovered this top-secret initiative at the Cubs’ Arizona complex (where the team posted a “Pitch Lab in Progress” sign with a big red arrow on it, right next to a path that reporters would often walk by during spring training).

Chaim Bloom’s doomed-to-fail tenure as chief baseball officer for the Boston Red Sox also accentuates the stability around Hoyer’s regime. Though it’s easier to demonstrate progress when you’re not competing in the American League East, the Cubs have created a new identity around pitching and defense, finding pieces that fit together, fixing their bullpen on the fly and getting more innings out of their farm system.

“I had a pretty good feel for understanding in-game adjustments,” Wicks said. “A lot of what the (Cubs organization) did was I didn’t have a real understanding of pitch shapes and analytics and what plays where, as far as my stuff. One thing the org did a really good job of — as well as teaching me how to properly throw a curveball, a slider, all that sort of stuff — was (explaining) where my stuff plays and what zones to be more aware of. They did a lot of really good work in that area.”

Those numbers in bullpen sessions and minor-league ballparks don’t always translate into major-league results. Wicks, who came into the organization with a studious approach and 48 college starts under his belt, quickly entered David Ross’ circle of trust. A fast way for a pitcher to annoy the Cubs manager is not to throw strikes, and Wicks has walked only five of the 89 major-league hitters he has faced.

Ross watched Wicks wriggle out of early trouble against the Pittsburgh Pirates and win his major-league debut on Aug. 26. In his next two starts, Wicks beat the Cincinnati Reds and San Franciso Giants, two teams chasing the Cubs in the wild-card race. Wicks then went into Coors Field and allowed only one run in six innings against the Colorado Rockies.

“The one thing you heard about him coming up was he knew how to handle himself,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “He’s not afraid of the moment. Some guys come up here and thrive in that environment. He’s definitely been a guy who’s come up and hasn’t backed down from the challenge.”

Wicks is left-handed and listed at 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, physical attributes that should help him maintain a career. His sub-2.00 ERA is not sustainable, but his changeup and varied pitch mix will give teams something to think about. Scouts and analysts will study his game for weaknesses. Hitters will make adjustments. But the Cubs have created an environment in which a rookie can be dropped into the middle of a playoff race and sort of relax.

“The guys have been really open and welcoming,” Wicks said. “They just kept reminding me that I didn’t need to be anything other than myself, that my stuff plays really well at this level and I’m here for a reason. They instill a lot of confidence in me. It was awesome to hear that from them. Because all you want, really, is the respect of your teammates and your coaches.”

(Top photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top