Without being immorally cliché, Hayden Simpson can only be described as an unfinished novel. Members of the media and fans alike were baffled by the choice to draft Simpson with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Chicago Cubs front office staff.
After spending three years at Division II Southern Arkansas—where he registered a 13-1 record as a starter in his junior season—Simpson caught the attention of Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken as a top draft choice, while most other organizations had him going somewhere in the fourth round or later.
Simpson was alerted that he may be a top choice by Chicago, but was told to keep the good news to himself. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old right hander, the urge to boast was too difficult to resist.
“We knew, but we tried to downplay it a little bit, because we didn't want people to think it was some kind of deal with the Cubs,” said Simpson following pregame practice. “Maybe I overplayed it a little bit, and I came to find out I did. But it always comes as a surprise when it actually works out that way.”
During his junior season, attention from the Cubs organization began to grow, allowing Simpson to stack up higher than many top-ranked Division I pitchers.
“The same scout kept following me around, and I think he was at pretty much every start, and Tim Wilken was at my regional start in Tampa,” said Simpson.
As a first-round selection, pressure to perform is already exceedingly high. But as a Division II athlete from an unknown school in Arkansas, expectations were unmeasurable for Simpson. Immediately following the draft, Simpson fell ill for a span of nearly seven months because of the mono virus, taking him away from the mound and forcing him to miss the entire season.
Before getting sick, Simpson's fastball—undoubtedly his best pitch—was topping out around 97 miles per hour. Once he was able to pitch again, it was clear that it would be difficult to get the phenomenal velocity back quickly.
“I think what they saw [before the draft] was a winner; I was 35-2 in college and I was real aggressive pitcher,” said Simpson. “I had an above average fastball then too, which I'm working on getting back right now.”
Simpson's velocity struggles were first put on display when he was assigned to the Class-A Peoria Chiefs in 2011. His 1-6 record in 16 starts left many questioning his mentality, and ability to adjust to professional baseball. However, since arriving in Boise, Simpson has made major tweaks in order to perfect his off-speed pitches and regain the velocity on his fastball.
Along with short season Class-A head coach, and former Chicago Cubs catcher, Mark Johnson, Simpson hopes to first change his mindset when he steps on the mound.
“We're just going back to his roots and trying to regain some arm strength,” said Johnson. “It's about getting him on the right side mentally, and getting him more positive outings and not having to be in pressure situations.”
Low pressure situations is just what Simpson needs, at this point. As a winner, Simpson still wants to contribute for whatever team he plays for, regardless of the level of play. Still, the pressure due to his small stature and lack of notoriety out of college lingers in his mind.
“At first, I definitely felt the pressure. Had I been able to roll right in after the draft, there wouldn't have been any pressure at all because where I was at, I felt like I could have competed anywhere,” said Simpson. “That's kind of the mindset I'm trying to get back to right now, just to not worry about what the doubters are saying.”
Though Simpson wants to regain the ability he had before the draft, he thinks he can push himself much farther this season. Even with the uncertainty of his future with the Cubs, success is something Simpson simply cannot live without.
“For me, it's getting back to that point and moving forward,” said Simpson. “With all the experience of some of the guys in this game, you try to figure out what works and what doesn't work for you and part of my problem was re-figuring out what got me here.”
In minor league baseball, no athlete's future is guaranteed, even for a first-round draft choice. Being at the lower Class-A level has allowed Simpson to focus closer on the fundamentals he perfected over recent years.
“Being here has allowed me to focus more on playing the game, and playing the game the right way, without having to look over my shoulder. I'd being lying to you if I told you I don't want to win, but at the same time it is more about development than wins and losses.”
With a pitcher as young and raw as Simpson, the timetable for a big league appearance is always different, but with the reinforcement of fundamentals and the development of a professional mentality, Simpson will have no problem doing what he does best: shock the world.
John Engel is a Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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