It’d be prime source material for a screenplay had Dennis Quaid not already starred in The Rookie. Then again, Hollywood loves its reboots. And the wild tale of 37-year-old lefty Luke Hagerty is even more inconceivable than that of fellow southpaw Jim Morris, whose high-90’s heater took the then-35-year-old from coaching high school baseball to pitching for the Rays in 1999. Seriously, it’s incredible.
That Hagerty will turn 38 on April 1 makes his Sidd Finch-esque tale even more ironically implausible, but this is far from a fabrication. Hagerty can’t throw 168 mph like Finch, but his 96.9 mph average fastball at Driveline Baseball‘s January 13 Pro Day had scouts salivating. Rather than poach the whole story of Hagerty’s odyssey, I’ll first direct you to Jeff Passan’s well-woven tale over at ESPN for all the intricate details of exactly how the lefty came back.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t get into a little bit of it, since we’re talking about a player nearly 17 years removed from his first professional contract…also with the Cubs. Drafted 32nd overall out of Ball State in 2002, Hagerty earned a $1 million bonus after adding 12 ticks to his fastball — from 82 to 94 — over three years in Muncie, IN.
The 6-foot-7 southpaw towered over the competition in short-season Boise, striking out 50 and posting a 1.13 ERA in 48 innings following his selection. A torn UCL cost him all of the 2003 season and most of 2004, after which everything fell apart. Hagerty developed an incurable case of the yips and lost all ability to throw strikes.
“I usually tell people it’s like your signature,” Hagerty told Passan. “You know how to write your name. Someone gives you a piece of paper and a pen and you can write it. Maybe there’s variance. It was like someone gave me a pen, and it was scribble all over the paper. It made no sense.”
You know how they talk about “video game numbers” when someone’s performance is so incredible that it doesn’t seem like it could happen in real life. That was Hagerty in from 2005 on, only not in a good way. The Marlins had selected him in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, but he didn’t stick and was returned to the Cubs. In 6.2 innings back at Boise, Hagerty allowed 26 runs (23 earned) on 14 hits and 30 walks. No typos. He struck out only four men and hit four more, sending nine wild pitches to the backstop.
He put up a 31.05 ERA, 6.60 WHIP, and 40.5 BB/9 during that abbreviated season, eventually becoming too scared to even throw warmups. Hagerty would pitch only 3 innings at high-A Daytona the following season, walking nine and hitting two more to end his tenure in affiliated ball. Over 14.2 innings with independent Rockford and Schaumburg over the next two seasons, he allowed 20 runs (17 earned) on 17 hits and 24 walks.
Hagerty gave on his dream following the 2008 season, relocating to Phoenix and going back to school to become a strength and conditioning specialist. He got married, started a family, and settled into his new venture, X2 Athletic Performance. He threw himself into his work, literally, and embraced the methods and technology employed by cutting edge outfits like Driveline. Hagerty began routinely throwing in the mid-90’s and added nasty breaking stuff and a changeup to boot.
So fast-forward the days following his showcase, when the Cubs beat out the Brewers to sign Hagerty. They had to wait out the effects of the recent polar vortex to get the results of his physical, but Hagerty cleared and his minor league deal was official. More than what the Cubs could offer in terms of facilities and staff, it was their history with Hagerty that brought him back. He still felt he owed the organization something.
Whether or not he can repay that debt, though, it something else entirely. While the numbers from the radar gun are titillating, those on Hagerty’s birth certificate don’t exactly scream success. Then there’s the matter of translating his results from the sterile environs of workout facilities to the field against live batters. Sure, he’s faced them recently, but not in actual competition.
The Cubs are going to get Hagerty to Mesa posthaste and let him determine the next steps from there. He’ll be the one to tell the team when he’s ready to throw outdoors or face hitters, and the Cubs don’t plan to force anything when it comes to his assignment following spring training. Nothing is assumed, nothing expected. But, man oh man, if Hagerty has really overcome those yips…
At the very least, this is easily the best pure story coming out of Cubs camp this season. I mean, unless Ryne Sandberg comes out of retirement again and starts launching dingers as a backup first baseman or has developed a killer knuckleball. The mere thought of a 38-year-old who hasn’t pitched professionally in over a decade launching a comeback with the same organization that drafted him initially is full of so much unadulterated awesomeness that I struggle to comprehend it.
That Hagerty is doing this while throwing harder than he ever did in his prime, harder than nearly any other lefty in the game, is equally mind-blowing. And did I mention that he’s older than anyone else on the roster, old enough that, were he a hitter, Chili Davis could have related to him? This stuff isn’t supposed to happen. But this is baseball and sometimes the impossible becomes very real.
Even the people bemoaning the Cubs’ penchant for digging through the scratch-and-dent pile for bargains have to admit how badass it’d be to see Hagerty make it. Hell, it’d be one of the greatest comeback stories of all time. Inject that stuff right into my veins, I can’t wait to see what he’s able to do.