Danny Hultzen went 1-4, with a 5.92 ERA in 12 starts for Triple-A Tacoma this year. In today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, some people could look at those numbers and discount him as a top prospect. But that would be a mistake.
The Seattle Mariners took the 23-year-old (as of tomorrow) southpaw second-overall in the 2011 draft for a reason: He knows how to pitch. Hultzen logged a 1.19 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 13 Double-A starts before moving up to Tacoma. His Double-A performance is every bit as telling as his Triple-A speed bump. When you finish your first professional season one step from the big leagues, your future is bright.
Hultzen talked about his approach to pitching — and his second-half struggles — near the end of this year’s minor league season.
David Laurila: How do you get guys out?
Danny Hultzen: My mentality is to keep things simple. I attack the hitter, and by that, I mean coming at him aggressively by throwing everything in the strike zone and not being afraid of anybody. I’ve found that if you keep that aggressive mentality, you have a better shot than if you try to trick people.
DL: Has your approach changed since coming to pro ball?
DH: A little bit. In college, you can rely more on your fastball. You can attack hitters that way. I still do that in pro ball, but at the same time, these guys are really good fastball hitters. It doesn’t really matter how hard you throw, they can turn on it, so it’s more important to hit your spots and keep the ball down. It’s important to mix pitches, because if you become predictable — even if you’re throwing hard — these guys will punish you for it.
DL: Does velocity still matter?
DH: It does, but at the same time, it doesn’t. The harder you throw, the more mistakes you can get away with. But at the higher levels, you don’t get away with as many. I’ve seen guys throw 98 and get turned around. What velocity does is not force you to be as perfect.
I wouldn’t call myself a hard thrower. I have to keep the ball down and off the heart of the plate. I try to hit the glove, but without trying to be so fine that I end up walking guys.
DL: How would you describe your fastball?
DH: My four-seam is pretty straight, with maybe a little tail. My two-seam has a little more run and sink. I don’t throw it as hard as my four-seam. I probably throw more two-seams, because I’m trying to induce weak contact and get guys to hit ground balls.
DL: What is your best secondary pitch?
DH: Probably my changeup. I throw it against both righties and lefties. I try to keep it low in the zone and make it look like my fastball as much as possible. Hopefully I can get some weak ground balls and swings and misses with it.
The grip on it is kind of weird. I wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but people have called it the Vulcan. My middle finger and ring finger are kind of separated. My ring and pinky fingers are on one side of the ball. Split apart from that, my middle and pointer fingers are on the other side.
My Little League coach taught it to me when we started throwing changeups. He was a minor league baseball player and it worked for him, so he taught it to me and I’ve thrown it ever since.
DL: What else is in your repertoire?
DH: A slider. It’s kind of a slurvy slider, not necessarily a true, hard slider. It’s kind of in between a slider and a curveball, and I throw it to both righties and lefties. I’ll try to get ahead with it. Like I said before, I try to mix my pitches. You can’t let guys sit on your fastball, so I’ll mix that in as a first-pitch strike. When I get two strikes on a hitter, I’ll throw it in the dirt, trying to get him to swing at it.
DL: How much do rely on scouting reports?
DH: Something I did a lot of in college [at the University of Virginia], and still do here, is watch film and watch hitters. I’ll especially watch guys against other left-handed pitchers, to see how they handle certain pitches. We have a lot of that data here, and I’m sure there’s even more in the big leagues.
I don’t do a lot of statistical stuff. There are obviously important things, like making sure you’re throwing first-pitch strikes, but beyond that, I’m more of a guy who likes to watch the hitters.
DL: You missed a few starts this season. Why?
DH: We were trying to limit my innings. I was getting to the point where I’d thrown the most innings I’ve thrown. I’m throwing every five days, as opposed to seven, like in college. They were just giving me a little refresher. It helped a lot. I wasn’t feeling bad, or anything like that, but it‘s still been a long year.
DL; What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken out of your first professional season?
DH: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to be myself. You can’t try to be a pitcher you’re not. There were points in the year where I was trying to throw the ball too hard, or trying to strike guys out or trying to make a perfect pitch in a tough situation. The reality is that you need to trust your mechanics and your pitches. You have to trust your stuff and not try to do too much.
DL: Any final thoughts?
DH: I go out there and have fun. That’s one of the things our pitching coach keeps reminding us of. It’s still a game, and it’s still fun, even though there‘s a lot more to it now. Baseball is something I love doing, so I try to look at it like that.
Most of my Triple-A starts haven’t been very good. I’ve been walking a lot of guys and giving up a lot of hits and a runs. It was a tough stretch, but you know what? It’s helped me out a lot. It’s been very beneficial, because you need to learn how to fail in this game. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but I haven’t faced a lot of failure as a pitcher. You need to learn how to cope with it, and I think I have. Hopefully most of it is behind me.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.