New year, new Hammel: Cubs pitcher trying to put 'tale of two halves' behind him


New year, new Hammel: Cubs pitcher trying to put 'tale of two halves' behind him

MESA, Ariz. - Shortly after the Cubs were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets, Theo Epstein chalked up 2015 as a "tale of two halves" for Jason Hammel.

Hammel had just taken the loss in the deciding Game 4 of the NLCS, surrendering five runs in 1.1 innings. It was a continuation of a rough second half for the veteran starter, who put up a 5.10 ERA after the All-Star Break (he boasted a 2.86 ERA heading into the break).

Hammel admitted his struggles last year were both mental and physical as he dealt with leg injuries that affected his mechanics.

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This spring, Hammel showed up to camp looking like a completely different guy after shedding some weight and growing a big, bushy beard over the winter.

So, new year, new Hammel?

"Not to overdo that, but just to switch it up a little bit," he said. "Kinda break up that monotony of getting stuck in that same routine. That was kinda the idea of everything this offseason - see what else there was that I haven't discovered yet."

Hammel focused on strengthening and conditioning his legs more over the offseason in an effort to stay healthy and durable throughout the course of a long season.

He even sought help from outside sources to get different opinions from people who didn't have any preconceived notions about how to fix his injury issues.

"At some point, you have to realize - and I feel like I've actually arrived at this point a couple times in my career - where I have to do something more," he said. "Kinda re-evaluate the mechanics and try to figure out why I was faltering at the end of the year.

"I want to be the best that I can be. Not to say there's inner demons or anything like that, but I had to figure something out. I had to find a way to get better. As you get older, things don't come as easily. The body doesn't bounce back as quickly."

Hammel didn't want to blame his rough second half on just the injuries, acknowledging he wasn't getting the job done.

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Hammel - who claimed he didn't pay attention to any possibility he'd be included in an offseason trade - said he didn't blame Joe Maddon for all those quick hooks in August and September, saying he hopes to "squash" that storyline.

Maddon and Hammel go way back to their Tampa Bay days starting in 2006 and the Cubs manager also brushed aside any notion of lasting resentment from Hammel's early exits last season.

"If you don't have arguments or discussions or disagreements - whatever you want to call them - with your group over a course of time, then you're really not doing your job," Maddon said. "You're not going to keep everybody 100 percent happy all the time."

Maddon made sure to add that he and Hammel are good now and he talked up the 33-year-old's offseason work, saying Hammel was in the best shape of his life.

Hammel's spring physique didn't go unnoticed among his teammates, either, as both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester complimented Hammel's conditioning and mindset.

"He seems like he's more relaxed," Lester said. "I think he just feels more comfortable. He looks great. He says he feels great, which is always good, especially - as pitchers - we need our legs and he had that leg injury last year. You could really tell he struggled after that to kinda maintain his delivery.

"When you start doing that stuff, you start pressing a little more. It becomes hard to kinda catch up when you're behind the eight ball like that. It's good to see him healthy."

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Hammel said he spoke to Arrieta a bit about offseason training, but hasn't yet taken to pilates the way the reigning NL Cy Young winner has.

"He just rededicated himself," Arrieta said. "He wanted to make some changes. I'm very, very happy for him and proud of him for doing the things he did this offseason.

"He's committed to making himself better, which in turn, is going to make us a lot better as a team."

As for the beard, Hammel figured he might as well try something new, joking maybe it was his midlife crisis. Plus, it gives him something to talk about with teammates like Arrieta.

"I was asking Jake what he uses in his," Hammel said. "I'm sure it's like Sabertooth tiger blood or something."

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."