Southpaw Wicks delves into four-pitch arsenal at Minors camp

February 28th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- The first time Jordan Wicks stepped into the Cubs' pitch lab, it was deep into the unrelenting Arizona summer last year. The club gathered data as the lefty fired pitches and worked up a lather in the heat.

"It was hot. Extremely hot," Wicks said with a laugh Monday. "When I took my jersey off and set it on the ground, I think it made a thump with the sweat when it hit the ground.

"It definitely feels a lot better being in there this time of year."

Wicks -- the club's No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- is among the prospects taking part in the team's Minor League minicamp at the Cubs' complex. And when the 22-year-old left-hander steps into the lab now, he feels like a different pitcher than the one Chicago grabbed with the No. 21 pick in last year's MLB Draft.

That hot July throwing session last year was the beginning of a transformation for Wicks.

"I feel like I'm loaded up, weapon-wise," Wicks said. "Different than I ever have been."

Here is a look at how Wicks has changed in the past seven months:

While pitching for Kansas State, Wicks said he had a pretty standard formula for his fastball usage. The lefty leaned on two-seamers arm side (outside against a righty batter or inside for a lefty) and four-seamers glove side.

It worked for Wicks, and he didn't want to alter anything as MLB scouts continued to monitor his outings. It was an approach that helped him set a school record for strikeouts in one season (118 in 2021) and in a career (230).

"When the Draft's coming," Wicks said, "I didn't really want to change a whole lot. I wanted to keep what I was doing the same."

Wicks had heard his four-seam fastball had good rising action and that message has been reiterated by the Cubs since he joined the club. Now the left-hander is working almost exclusively with a four-seamer (with a focus on using it up in the zone) in preparation for the upcoming season.

"You learn about analytic stuff early in college," Wicks said. "But you don't really understand the meaning of it, or what to put emphasis on. Here, they teach you about it and they say, 'This is what it means. This is what you're looking for. This is what you want.' It's a big help."

The Cubs have helped a growing list of pitchers learn and develop a "spike curveball." Wicks was hesitant to adopt that style of curve, which can involve pushing the nail into the seams.

"I didn't like the feel on it," Wicks said.

Over the offseason, though, Wicks kept toying with the pitch in his mound workouts at either the University of Arkansas-Little Rock or the University of Central Arkansas. During that process, he found an altered grip that finally felt right.

"I didn't even realize it, but I gradually kind of transitioned it into a spike," Wicks explained. "It's almost a soft spike. It's kind of the pad of my finger, as opposed to the fingernail. So it's almost like a placeholder in a way."

Adjusting the curveball was a primary goal for Wicks after he joined the Cubs, but there was also the issue of his slider.

In college, that pitch acted more like a cutter. Wicks said his task was to find a way to get more sweeping action, especially given the added depth with his adjusted curve. In a recent bullpen session, Wicks had a "lightbulb moment" with High-A South Bend pitching coach Tony Cougoule watching.

"I threw two with my old grip and it was like, 'Eh, I don't really like that,'" Wicks said. "'Let me just try something.' So I just tried it and me and T.C. were both like, 'What in the world was that?'"

The new slider has the "horizontal sweep" that Wicks was trying to find. Wicks laughed when asked if he currently has more comfort with the curveball or the slider.

"Ask me tomorrow. It might be different," he quipped. "As long as they're both making progress, which they are."

The changeup has been Wicks' bread-and-butter pitch and he has no plans of moving from that approach. He said he always had a knack for the pronation required to command his circle-change, and he has learned how to trust in the movement.

"It's got so much action to it, so much late life," Wicks said. "If you think about it, hitters want to hit pitches right down the middle. They don't want to hit stuff on an edge.

"So if you start a changeup on an edge, it's an auto-take. If you start a changeup down the middle, you get a lot of swings and the action takes care of everything after that."

Wicks is looking forward to picking the brain of Cubs rotation leader Kyle Hendricks, who can manipulate his signature changeup in multiple ways. Similarly, the pitching prospect said he can alter his changeup depending on the situation and hitter.

The goal now for Wicks will be to learn how to put these new puzzle pieces together.

"I'll still be the same type of bulldog pitcher that I've always been," Wicks said. "But I'm just excited for these new weapons and to see how I use them."