MESA, Ariz. -- Jason Hammel took a good look at himself this offseason. He got some advice about his mental approach to the game, revised his diet, tweaked his mechanics, tried to squelch any talk of a rift between him and manager Joe Maddon, and the end result could be the best season for the Cubs right-hander.
Hammel was puzzled as to why he didn't feel as good in the second half as he did in the first half in 2015. What he didn't expect to hear was that one expert was surprised he had any success at all.
In December, Hammel met with pitching guru Tom House, who evaluated both the mental and physical aspects of his game.
"He said, 'I don't know how you pitched in the big leagues for this long,' and I was shocked he was saying this to me," Hammel said Thursday. "He sounded like I was terrible. He said, 'I don't know how you pitched this long, because there's so much more in there and untapped potential in there, and it's the simplest fix.' It was an eye-opener."
House not only watched video of Hammel but also had the pitcher complete a "star profile" in which he looked at a list of 300 words and picked the ones that best described him.
"It was eye-opening, because the saying is, 'The teacher will appear when the student is ready to listen,'" Hammel said. "I've always been a good listener and I've always tried new things, but I've been around now for a long time and know myself pretty well, or so I thought. The stuff [the profile] spit out was pretty impressive. It was kind of like, 'You may say the right things and feel you're doing the right things, but maybe you're not doing them to the exact intensity and level of respect you need to expect to do it at.'"
House told Hammel that the profile revealed a glaring weakness in how the pitcher viewed himself.
"[He said] there needs to be more 'Stop beating yourself up,'" Hammel said of House's message. "How you build your confidence is by getting to that routine and being able to trust the routine. You need to be really intense with that routine. It's not necessarily saying, 'You were going through the motions,' but that I needed to pick it up. It was a shock to me, because I've always been a hard worker and I've never taken anything for granted."
So, Hammel was given tips on how to fine tune everything he does, from his routine to his thought process on pitching. He did make a slight mechanical adjustment, rotating his shoulders about 30 degrees. Other pitching coaches had recommended that but Hammel said he didn't feel comfortable. This offseason, he tried it, and it felt good.
On Thursday, Hammel threw about 60 pitches during a side session. Each time he's thrown, he is more encouraged by the results. His mechanics feel cleaner, he's using his lower half more, and that will help his arm be stronger in the second half.
"This is all stuff that I knew," Hammel said. "Sometimes you get into a road block and you're so into a routine, and you're like, I can't deviate, because then I'm not going to know what my body feels like. By starting earlier in the offseason and beginning the routine, I can change it up. It's been night and day."
Hammel said he always tells young pitchers to use the lower half of their body rather than just their arm, but wasn't aware he was making that mistake.
"It's translated so far," he said of his early sessions. "My arm feels great, the lower half feels even better. Obviously, the core training is better -- that's what I changed with the diet."
In November, he worked with trainer Eric Cressey, who is based in Massachusetts, and who helped Hammel with some pitcher-specific exercises to strengthen his core and his legs and also revised his diet. The right-hander lost 20 pounds this offseason.
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has noticed the difference during the early work by Hammel, who decided to get the outside advice on his own.
"It was for me," Hammel said. "I wanted to assess what I wanted to accomplish. I'm 33, and I feel I have plenty of successful, competitive years left in this game. You continue to keep learning."
Cubs pitchers and catchers don't have their first official workout until Saturday. Hammel is ahead of schedule.
"It's becoming more of my routine to do it the new way," he said. "Fastball command, the ball is coming out better, breaking balls are better, changeup is better. I'm happy so far, and we haven't even kicked off Day 1."
During the Cubs Convention in January, Hammel was surprised to be asked by fans about possible friction between him and Maddon. It started Aug. 6 when Hammel was pulled after four innings against the Giants. Naturally, he wanted to pitch longer.
"It must have looked really bad," Hammel said. "Joe wants to win; I want to win. Obviously, I want to be out there and continue to pitch and I want to work through my messes and make the adjustments. I understand that Joe has an obligation to make sure that the nine guys on the field are the best ones at the time, so that the win comes home.
"There's egos involved when you know there's a disagreement. I feel I can get through it, Joe knows I can get through it, but he has to make a decision. You check [your ego] at the door, you go out there, you play. If it's not so good, and you have a question, you talk, and we talked several times."
Hammel said their conversations were "never malicious, it was never a shouting match or anything like that." And Maddon told Hammel that he understood. It's over.
So, will Cubs fans see a new Jason Hammel?
"Same guy -- but I would say 'crisper,'" he said. "Obviously, I want to be the best I can be, and I'll do everything I can. It wasn't any stress on me to go down there and listen to somebody say not so nice things. I can listen."