Cubs' Hayden Simpson Out To Bust Myths In Debut
PEORIA, ILL.—Hayden Simpson would like to clear up some myths regarding his background.
"I don't know where all these different stories came from," said Simpson, a righthander the Cubs selected 16th overall in the 2010 draft who is in the midst of his first professional season with Peoria. "It's like it was printed once, and once that happened it became fact for everybody else to use."
Myth No. 1: Coming out of Magnolia (Ark.) High, he was lightly recruited and his only option to continue his career was at hometown Southern Arkansas, an NCAA Division II program where his neighbor, Allen Gum, was head coach.
"I had a lot of Big 12 schools on me and some SEC schools, too," Simpson said. "Arkansas wanted me to wait until spring to sign. I didn't want to wait until spring because I didn't want the recruiters always coming around during our season and disrupting our team, because we had a chance to be really good."
As for Gum, he wasn't right next door.
"We lived in the same neighborhood," Simpson said. "He came over and spent about two hours talking with me and what struck me was how much he cared about his players and his program. That's rare in college because some coaches, when you don't produce, just forget about you and move on to the next guy."
Gum took in Simpson's two years at quarterback for the Magnolia High football team and liked what he saw.
"I saw a winner and a field general," said Gum, now the head coach at Central Arkansas. "Even if he had been throwing 80 mph, he was going to win games because he was so competitive."
The Perfect Match
Indeed. Simpson went on to post a career record of 35-2, 2.39 with 323 strikeouts. He credits former SAU pitching coach Wes Johnson, who is now on Gum's staff at Central Arkansas, for helping him develop.
"When coach Johnson came, that flipped the script," Simpson said. "He's such a charismatic guy and you want to work for him.
"But, even better, he wants to work for you. He's the reason I am where I am today, and I tell him that every time I talk to him."
Gum had high praise for Johnson's work with Simpson as well.
"There's two things Wes Johnson does better than just about anybody else: increase a pitcher's velocity and help get pitchers ready mentally for the long college season," Gum said. "That's why he and Hayden were like two peas in a pod.
"Wes tailors his programs to the individual and Hayden followed his to the letter."
Myth No. 2: The Cubs shocked everyone by taking him so high. Most other teams had him rated him toward rounds 8-10.
"Everything we had heard from the scouts that we had talked to was Rounds 2-3," Simpson said. "And the first round was never out of the question.
"We knew the Cubs were a first-round possibility and we later found out that the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were thinking about taking me there, too."
If it weren't enough to have so many draft pundits questioning his lofty draft status, there was bad news looming.
"About a month before our season ended, I got really sick for two-to-three weeks," Simpson said. "It seemed like a really bad cold or flu bug. I would go to class and I couldn't sit through it. I'd get cold sweats, my neck would ache, my back would ache."
Those symptoms make his performance during the NCAA Division II playoffs even more impressive. In a regional semifinal, Cubs scouts watched his fastball hit 94-97 mph and he showed a biting, 80 mph slider and a 76 mph curveball.
Following the draft, Simpson was flown up to Chicago to be introduced to the media and throw a bullpen at Wrigley Field.
"I'd been feeling better, but after I threw my 'pen and signed my contract, I went out to sit in the stands and watch the game," said Simpson, who signed a below-slot deal for $1.06 million—about $500,000 below what MLB recommended. "After about two or three innings in the stands, I started to feel sick again.
"I was so sick that I left the park and then had to leave a dinner later that night with team executives."
Simpson returned home after meeting with the Cubs doctors, who said they would monitor him for mononucleosis. Once home, his symptoms continued to worsen.
"It got so bad that I had to sleep in the bathtub because I was vomiting so much and because I was sick of sweating through the sheets every night," Simpson said.
Doctors eventually diagnosed him with mononucleosis, but that didn't help Simpson.
"For three months, I was just spent, I had no energy and couldn't even eat solid food," Simpson said. "I could barely eat yogurt."
Not until Thanksgiving was Simpson eventually cleared to resume full baseball activities.
"By that time, I'd missed everything, even instructs," Simpson said. "But that might have been the best thing for me after I threw so many innings during the college season."
Simpson finally resumed his routine this spring. And although he hasn't flashed the same velocity with Peoria, Simpson's coaches and teammates are still raving about him.
"He's got a great work ethic," Chiefs catcher Micah Gibbs said. "And that's the first thing you need to be a frontline starter in the big leagues.
"Plus, he's got pitchability. He's got four plus pitches that he can throw for a strike at any time."
Simpson was 1-1, 4.05 in 40 innings for the Chiefs and was splitting his starts with lefthander Eric Jokisch, an 11th-round selection who started 6-0, 2.44.
"Hayden has done everything we've asked him to and followed our plan," Chiefs manager Casey Kopitzke said. "Hayden's fun to watch because he's got a fire that burns inside of him."
Ben Diggle is a freelance writer based in Peoria