There were times over the last four years Eric Stout thought about walking away from baseball.
His big-league experience — three games in 2018 with the Kansas City Royals — left him wanting more. But his path back to the majors tested how badly he wanted it.
Stout spent the last three offseasons pitching in the Puerto Rico winter leagues. He made nine appearances with three different teams in the independent leagues over the previous three years.
Signing a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs in March at least united Stout with the team he grew up rooting for. On Monday, his big-league dream was again fulfilled. The Cubs called up the left-hander from Triple A and designated left-hander Sean Newcomb for assignment.
Stout took a moment to soak it in Monday afternoon when he stood on the Wrigley Field mound.
“I would probably say it’s better than my first call up with the Royals in 2018 — it’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” Stout said. “It looks the same distance between home plate and the mound in Iowa and everywhere else I’ve been, but just a couple more seats in the stands. So it’s very, very cool to be on the field rather than the stands.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, honestly.”
Stout, 29, grew up in Glen Ellyn where his parents and grandmother still live. He was expecting a lot of family and friends from high school and college in attendance and was most excited about his 91-year-old grandmother attending Monday’s game against the San Diego Padres. Stout said she hasn’t seen him pitch since he was in college at Butler.
Stout had only been at Wrigley twice before Monday: a ballpark tour when he was about 10 years old and a predraft workout.
Cubs manager David Ross said Stout’s journey around baseball is a strength.
Said Ross: “The guys that have some adversity and have the up-and-down track record a little bit and then they go to winter ball or they go to the minor leagues and they continue to have that much love for the game and continue to work to get better, there’s something really powerful in that.
“When you take your downtime, your winters, your off time and you’re still working at your craft and competing in maybe the most not ideal circumstances, that just shows how committed they are to their craft.”
Stout’s challenging journey back to the big leagues can be traced back to a spring training dinner three months ago in Mesa, Ariz. He met with Cubs assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos, a relationship that dates to working together at Driveline.
That established trust led to a dinner conversation during which Moskos simply asked Stout, “How’s your slider?”
Stout explained he never really trusted the pitch because it often was hit or miss for him.
Moskos then inquired about his curveball, which Stout loved and had a grip-it-and-rip-it approach. With that groundwork, Moskos suggested a new slider grip.
“We didn’t even have a baseball,” Moskos told the Tribune. “The genesis of this came from literally, like, mimicking seams with my other fingers and showing him where his hand needed to go. But the concept for him is really easy.”
Having looked at Stout’s repertoire, Moskos believed Stout needed a better off-speed pitch against left-handed hitters to generate more whiffs. Because of Stout’s mechanics, Moskos explained the new grip required him to throw the slider like his curveball.
“I reemphasized it, like, ‘Look, this is a curveball, do not try and make this sweep,’” Moskos recalled. “‘It will not work if you try to make it sweep. You have to try and create top spin.’ And so, obviously, it was very easy for him. He really took it and ran with it.”
Added Stout: “I felt like that put me on the map.”
The next step of Stout’s progression with his new slider is learning how to consistently throw it in and out of the zone as needed as well as figuring out the best way to utilize it against right-handed hitters.
“He’s only been throwing it for two months, and he’s got great results on it,” Moskos said. “Obviously we’d maybe like to be in the zone a little bit more with it. But for it being just square one with this pitch I think it’s incredible. It’s a tribute to why he’s up here. He’s got this slider and it’s hopefully going to be a weapon we’re able to leverage.”
Stout’s effective slider helped him post a 3.94 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 29⅔ innings. He has noticed, dating to last season, that the Cubs give guys shots at the big-league level when they perform at Triple A. Right-hander Matt Swarmer and catcher P.J. Higgins are among those call ups making the most of their opportunities with the Cubs.
“My mentality was go out and have fun and what happens happens,” Stout said. “It just gives you more hope. You see that they’re getting called up and they’re doing well. So it’s like, alright, well if I go out and put up some numbers my shot might come.”