North Vancouver native Rowan Wick is about to embark on the biggest month of his baseball career so far, starting with spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals and culminating in a spot as a relief pitcher on Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic.
It’s all good stuff for the Carson Graham grad, but there’s one piece of information that takes his story over the top: up until August of 2015, Wick had never pitched a meaningful inning in his life.
The 24-year-old came up through the Highlands Little League system before moving on to the Vancouver Cannons of the BC Premier Baseball league and a couple of years of college ball in the United States where he earned a reputation as a big-time home run threat. The Cardinals drafted him as a power-hitting catcher in 2012 and then moved him to the outfield in 2013. In 2014 he continued to rake, blasting 20 home runs with 60 runs batted in and a .383 on-base percentage in just 74 games at the single-A level.
When 2015 rolled around, however, the hits stopped topping the outfield fence, or even finding grass, as Wick batted .198 in 33 A-level games. While Wick saw only struggles at the plate, the Cardinals saw an opportunity to turn the six-foot-three, 220 pounder with a cannon of an outfield arm into a flame-throwing relief pitcher. In the middle of May, 2015, the organization yanked him out of the lineup and told him to put the bat away. He was now a pitcher, and he wasn’t too thrilled about the idea.
“I wanted to hit,” Wick told the North Shore News Wednesday in a phone call from Jupiter, Fla., where he is gearing up for the start of spring training this week. “Obviously no one is too pleased when someone tells you you’re not good enough at something, so I wasn’t too happy.”
It wasn’t a negotiation though. Wick was a pitcher.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” he said, adding that as he looks back now he knows that they were right. “My numbers weren’t too great and they wanted to see what I could do as a pitcher. … I think they gave me plenty enough time (to try to fix his hitting). I wasn’t doing too well mentally in 2015 and I think they saw that. It was a good time to do the switch.”
From that point on Wick concentrated solely on learning how to pitch, starting from scratch.
“I’d never really pitched at all,” he said, laughing as he recalled throwing off the mound for the first time. “The first time was not great, for sure. It was a long process.”
He spent three months on the practice field without seeing any game action.
“It was just learning how to pitch, learning to use my body off a mound,” he said. “Honestly the biggest thing I’ve learned is that everything is just being an athlete. Throwing from the outfield and throwing from the mound isn’t much different – it’s just you’re on a bump. It’s not necessarily pitching, it’s throwing – just being an athlete and using your body in a way that is the most productive.”
It was a painful process, figuratively and literally. Pitching is hard on the body – Wick said the toughest part was handling the constant arm soreness that all pitchers learn to deal with.
“They suggest you throw every day, and if your arm isn’t feeling too good, it’s not easy,” he said. “But the more you do it, the more you get used to it. The pain doesn’t go away fully, but you get used to it for sure.”
Wick took solace in the knowledge that the Cards have an impressive track record of turning position players into relief pitchers. Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal, two players who both spent time in the closer role with the big league club in recent years, both entered the organization as position players, as did David Carpenter and Sam Tuivailala – two other Cards converts who have pitched in the majors.
“They definitely know what they’re doing,” said Wick. “It’s good to know I’m in an organization that cares for their players and knows what they’re doing with their players.”
In August of 2015, three months after the switch, Wick finally took the mound for his first professional appearance as a pitcher.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “All the attention is on you. It was different for sure.”
The results weren’t exactly what he hoped for.
“I don’t think it went very well,” he said with a laugh, adding that the stakes weren’t particularly high. “It wasn’t a very important game, I’ll put it that way.”
Wick ended 2015 with a handful of innings under his belt at the rookie league and instructional league level. He went into spring training in 2016, his first camp as a pitcher, with fairly low expectations.
“I just wanted to stay healthy the full year,” he said. He did that, and a whole lot more. Wick started the season at the high-A level and was immediately dominant, earning a spot in the league’s all-star game after posting a 1.09 ERA and 0.89 WHIP (walk plus hits per innings pitched) with 37 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
He ended the season in AA, and though the numbers weren’t as gaudy at the higher level, he still finished his first full season with an impressive stat line: 2.44 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 44.1 innings.
At the end of the season he was rewarded by the Cardinals, who placed him on the 40-man protected roster for the 2017 season. It’s a big commitment for a player who has thrown less than 50 professional innings, but the club obviously likes his potential.
“We’re not trying to speed through this process,” Oliver Marmol, Wick’s manager at A-level Palm Beach, told MLB.com last summer. “It’s going to take time, but as far as him being capable of pitching at the highest level? Absolutely.”
That brings us up to the present, with Wick set to start training camp workouts with the Cardinals on Tuesday. He’s bringing with him a fastball that averages in the mid-90s and can reach 97 or 98 miles per hour, as well as a 12-6 curveball and what Wick calls a “work-in-progress” changeup. This spring he’ll be working on throwing all the pitches for strikes as well as refining his plan of attack.
“You have to attack with your fastball, and then I obviously let my curveball play off of it,” he said. “My curveball kind of comes up in the zone and then drops down, so if I let my fastball ride up in the zone and have my curveball play off of it, it’s kind of hard to see as a hitter.”
He’ll also spend a lot of time working on the finer points of being a big league pitcher.
“I’d like to have better mound presence and control the running game – those are things that are obviously essential to pitching in the big leagues because that’s when the game speeds up on you,” he said. “The game is so much faster the higher you move up – you need to control the little things like that.”
He’ll get a chance to try out his stuff in high-pressure situations with Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic. The Canadians – featuring big leaguers like Freddie Freeman, Andrew Albers and Justin Morneau – will be in Miami to take on the Dominican Republic on March 9, Colombia on March 11, and the United States on March 12.
Wick has experience at the international level, last suiting up for Canada as a member of the junior national team in 2010. That, of course, was as a hitter, so this will be his first time sporting the Maple Leaf jersey on the mound.
“It’s a huge honour for sure,” he said. “It’s something that not everybody gets to do, and I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunity. Hopefully we can do something big in Miami.”
Beyond that, Wick is dreaming of making his Major League debut. He’ll likely start the 2017 season in the minors, but there’s a chance he could pitch his way onto the Big League club sometime this year. It’s not quite the same dream he had just two years ago – back then there were visions of home runs, not strikeouts – but the dream now seems closer than ever.
“I can’t even imagine how it’s going to feel,” he said of stepping onto the field as a major leaguer, adding that he owes it all now to his switch to pitching. “I’m super happy with it. I don’t know how much farther I could have hit if they did let me figure it out, but this is definitely a better route for me. … Hitting a home run is pretty cool, but striking someone out is pretty awesome as well.”
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Wick isn’t the only player with North Shore connections on Team Canada’s roster for the World baseball Classic. North Vancouver native Scott Richmond, a former Blue Jay who last pitched in the majors in 2012, will suit up for Canada. He pitched in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in 2016.
Retired big leaguer Ryan Dempster, a former star with the North Shore Twins, was also named to the roster as a starting pitcher. The Gibsons native last toed the rubber in the big leagues in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox. Rounding out the local contingent is Michael Crouse, another former North Shore Twin. The outfielder, a New Westminster native, played for the Independent League’s New Britain Bees and Lancaster Barnstormers in 2016.