Footballs, frisbees and the unconventional ways Cubs pitchers prepare for games
Whenever the calendar flips to September, there are always a lot more footballs around big-league clubs.
As college football and the NFL heats up, it becomes a common sight at MLB ballparks to see baseball players throwing the football around in the outfield, wearing jerseys of their favorite football teams or discussing fantasy trades.
Some Cubs pitchers, like Jordan Wicks, utilize throwing the football as a normal part of their pregame routine year-round. Others, like Justin Steele or Julian Merryweather, throw the football around just for fun.
And then there’s José Cuas, who uses a frisbee to help him lock in the proper arm path on his slider.
“I throw the football from time to time,” Steele said. “I enjoy doing that. It’s just something I like to do to be athletic, catching it, running around and stuff before I play catch.”
The side-arming Cuas throws the football in the outfield, but only for fun.
“I’ll throw some from over the top and then flick some from down there, Patrick Mahomes-style,” Cuas said. “The football stuff is just to see how many spirals I can throw and keep the arm moving.”
Merryweather loves playing some football with his teammates in the Wrigley grass but exercises caution.
“When those routes are becoming 50-yard streaks, that’s a little too much fun,” he joked.
Wicks has thrown a football as part of his daily routine since his time at Kansas State University.
“Every day I throw, I throw the football,” he said. “It’s basically a really good warm up, especially for the shoulder. It’s like throwing a weighted ball without throwing a weighted ball in a way.
“I feel like it really does something for keeping the arm athletic. Being able to do different throwing motions and throw different sized balls and different weight does a lot for your arm health overall. I feel like in baseball, you get in one path, one path, one path. If you’re able to do multiple [paths], just for me personally, I feel like your arm holds up better than if you just do one thing.”
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy sees it the same way.
“Sometimes you get paralysis by trying to do the same thing over and over again,” Hottovy said. “There are other ways you can accomplish that. Guys are athletes — you see them throw a football, you see them be athletic and move.
“We use medicine balls, weighted balls at times off the mound to get guys to be able to separate, ‘OK, I’m trying to execute this pitch but also what I’m working on.’
“I think it’s a way to free the brain up a little bit. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m just being athletic, being free. I can do this.'”
Hottovy recalled working with former Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, who would throw a football whenever he felt like his arm was getting too long.
“I’ve used the football a lot more for guys when they start to feel like they really get long with their arm slot and their delivery,” Hottovy said. “That short, compact, free and easy [motion].
“The other thing about throwing the football is most quarterbacks don’t over stride when they’re throwing a football. Your feet are underneath you, it’s a nice, short load and throw. It’s an easy way to really simplify all the movements — the long stride, long arm of a baseball throw vs. the short, compact stride and throw of a football.”
Steele believes growing up throwing a football often helped him establish the way he delivers a baseball as a pitcher with a repertoire that mostly includes a slider and a fastball that he often throws like a cutter.
“I think I throw a baseball like a football,” Steele said. “It makes a lot of sense for me because I’m on that side of the ball and that’s kinda how you throw a football.
“You gotta turn your wrist at the right time and get the correct spiral that you want. It’s all the same as far as pitching and throwing motions. For me, it does a really good job of making me feel athletic.”
For Cuas, he feels like throwing a frisbee helps him lock in the arm slot for his slider. Instead of throwing the frisbee in a backhanded motion, the side-arming right-hander flings it across his body the same way he would throw a baseball.
“Last year, I used to throw it just for fun and then I started thinking about it: Hold on, this is the idea behind my slider to try to get as much sweep as possible,” Cuas said. “From that point on, I started working with it and it helped me a little bit.
“My mindset when I throw the slider is, ‘hey, just throw the frisbee.’ So if I miss on a slider, I’m getting back to, ‘hey, throw the frisbee.’ Get back to the cue that I want for the pitch.”
Throwing frisbees and footballs also help Cubs pitchers save some bullets, so to speak. They can keep their arm moving or work through their throwing motion without actually slinging the baseball.
Steele also uses a core velocity belt on the days between starts where he does not throw. It’s a contraption that goes around his waist and legs and helps keep him balanced and his body in the right position as he goes through his motion without actually throwing.
“Most guys that grow up playing football or throwing a ball know the difference between throwing a baseball and throwing a football,” Hottovy said. “And so you can easily incorporate some of those things into a routine without stealing too many reps away from the work they do.”
Wicks grew up with football. He was a kicker in high school and is a huge Dallas Cowboys fan (though his locker is next to an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan in Mark Leiter Jr.).
“[Leiter] got two Eagles jerseys in [this week],” Wicks said. “I told him if one of them ends up in my locker, we’re gonna have big problems.”
Of course, throwing the football is also just natural for a clubhouse full of sports fans who compete against each other in the same fantasy football league.
The Cubs have two leagues of 12 teams and the winners of each league play in a sort of Super Bowl at the end of the season.
Leiter won the league last season and proudly displays the championship belt in his locker inside the Cubs clubhouse.
“It’s just good camaraderie,” Steele said. “We all show up every day excited to get to the field and talk trades or just talk fantasy and chop it up. It’s another thing that brings us together.”
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