How Cubs catchers can help Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies get back on track
Willson Contreras had an idea.
After Zach Davies gave up 4 runs in the 1st inning in a game against the Braves last week, the Cubs catcher suggested the right-hander slide to the other side of the pitching rubber.
“He’s had a really rare angle on his fastball — something that caught my attention,” Contreras said at the time.
Davies took the advice and made a quick adjustment in-game. He managed to settle in and pitch another 2.2 innings while allowing the Cubs offense to mount a comeback.
The idea behind the minor adjustment was working with the movement on Davies’ pitches on that particular day — which Contreras can see firsthand as he receives each offering.
“It’s kinda like your golf swing — if you’re hitting a ball a certain way, do you just keep doing the same thing or play the slice?” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I think you saw that more as what can we do as a quick adjustment in the moment to get back and execute and get us in the strike zone?
“And then in the sides and in the bullpens, continue to work and get the feedback from the catchers.”
While moving to a different side of the rubber was more of a Band-Aid than a long-term solution, the perspective of the Cubs catchers can certainly help lend assistance as Davies and Kyle Hendricks work to get on track this season.
Both veteran right-handers are command pitchers, so they rely a lot more on location than pure “stuff.” Which means if their sinkers or changeups don’t have the right angle or movement, the ball can become flat and lead to a lot of hard hits.
That’s where the catchers can come in and let the pitcher and the Cubs coaching staff know what they’re seeing.
“As a former catcher, when you have your pitcher not locked in, the ball flight usually gives you a lot of feedback,” David Ross said. “So just having those conversations with him if there’s a way to set up differently.
“…Usually for me it was about making sure that they’re in the right frame of mind, try to give positive feedback when you do get a good pitch. I see Willson doing that every once in a while when you do get a pitch that’s got good action to the corners and give him a little fist bump from the catcher position or something like that. Try to reinforce the positives as you go through, either a bullpen or a game.”
Hendricks has worked with Contreras for years and trusts his backstop’s feedback. Contreras has been behind the plate for 78 of Hendricks’ outings over their careers, dating back to 2016.
“He’s the No. 1 resource for me by far,” Hendricks said. “He’s caught me for so long. He knows what I’m like when I’m good, when I’m bad. So yeah, taking what he sees and what he gives me is everything right now.
“Along with the rest of the staff. Everybody around here — they know me, they’ve seen me throw for a while now. Gonna get together with everybody and brainstorm, see what we’re seeing and just really get to work.”
Ultimately, it will be a team effort to get Hendricks and Davies locked in consistently with their mechanics and command.
In a sense, Contreras and backup catcher Tony Wolters become a part of the Cubs coaching staff and pitching infrastructure group in between starts as they catch bullpens.
They can also help pitchers find those temporary solutions in the middle of a game to adjust on the fly when there’s not enough time to pore over video.
“The viewpoint from the catcher is extremely valuable,” Hottovy said. “They see the game differently than we do. They see everything from their angle. We rely on that communication between the catchers and the pitcher and the coaches and what we’re all seeing and how we can make those necessary adjustments.
“Those guys do a great job and aren’t afraid to speak their mind. We love having their opinions all the time and it’s something that we definitely value in those moments.”