The Chicago Cubs had just made Hayden Simpson a millionaire and he couldn’t bear to sit in the stands at Wrigley Field.
His throat hurt.
He had a cold sweat.
His skin was pale.
“It was terrible,” he said.
It was June 17, 2010, and the first-round draft pick signed with the Cubs for $1.06 million, then pitched in the bullpen and was ready to enjoy a Cubs game with his family when a sore throat got worse and worse.
Before Simpson ever pitched in a professional game, he was bedridden. Strep throat quickly turned into mononucleosis and he was instructed to refrain from activities until after Thanksgiving.
“From there, it was downhill,” he said.
Simpson lost 22 pounds off his 6-foot, 175-pound frame.
“Most of it (was) muscle mass,” he said. “I did not have it to lose, that’s for sure.”
When he returned to the mound in 2011, the right-handed pitcher had lost much more than weight. His fastball that averaged 94 mph and topped out at 97 during his dazzling three-year college career at Southern Arkansas University plummeted to the mid-to-high 80s.
He struggled in 2011, finishing with a 1-10 record and 6.27 ERA, 57 strikeouts and 38 walks in 25 starts between the Cubs’ rookie league team in Mesa, Ariz., and Low-A Peoria (Ill.).
This season, Simpson is 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA, 17 strikeouts and 10 walks in 14 innings for the Boise Hawks. Simpson is scheduled to pitch in relief tonight against the Vancouver Canadians at Memorial Stadium.
His fastball is topping out at 92 mph, an increase of three mph from last year, helping the bite on his slider and sinker and keeping batters off balance with his changeup.
Three mph is a huge difference in velocity, Hawks pitching coach David Rosario said.
“We’re looking forward to seeing maybe two more (mph) into next year, and if that happens, then things are going to start changing,” Rosario said.
“Anything up to 90 is hittable. Anything mid 90s is really tough to hit.”
Simpson was tough to hit in college. He accumulated a 35-2 record in three seasons, including a 13-1 mark and 1.81 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings in 2010. He was runner-up for the Division II national player of the year award.
Tim Wilken, who was then in charge of the Cubs’ draft, noticed Simpson could throw above-average pitches and had a very good feel for pitching.
“I saw someone that I thought could be a starter in the major leagues,” Wilken said after the 2010 draft.
Even healthy, many believed Simpson was a reach to be selected 16th overall — or in the first round at all. Prior to the draft, Baseball America ranked Simpson as the 91st overall right-hander and 115th pitcher overall.
“I think that there’s a chance for solid progression,” Wilken said at the time.
Simpson is no longer that same pitcher that Wilken and the Cubs drafted. Not yet, anyway.
Simpson is in Boise after stumbling to a 2-3 record and 6.98 ERA in 14 appearances in 2012 with the Cubs’ High-A team in Daytona, Fla. He struck out 16 and walked 29 in 38 2/3 innings.
He said he would fall asleep at night, thinking “what if it never comes back?”
Now, Simpson, 23, simply believes he will eventually return to his dominating ways, or he won’t.
“I have to do everything I can to get it back,” he said.
“You play with the hand that you’re dealt, so I’ve been trying to stay positive with everything.”
As he continues to gain strength — he’s back to 170 pounds — and velocity on his pitches, Simpson continues to battle the expectations placed on a first-round draft pick.
“The toughest part of that was the mental part, because I had full faith in myself, just as the Cubs did, that I could have played anywhere,” he said. “And it was the hardest thing, because they did what they did, taking me where they took me, showing me the confidence they had. I had always had the same confidence in myself and just after getting back from all of that and not being what I was right away, I knew I wasn’t going to be what I was right away.”
Rosario said Simpson is learning to become a better pitcher. He no longer can make hitters swing and miss consistently, but has to work with the arsenal that’s now available.
“You have to become a better pitcher, and you have to command the strike zone,” Rosario said.
“It’s got to be really tough for a young guy who was in a great place to go through all that and then have to survive and learn to deal with all the adversity.”