The Puzzle of Danny Hultzen
When the Seattle Mariners picked Danny Hultzen in the first round (second overall) in 2011, they were supposed to be getting a very polished pitcher, almost major league ready. Fast forward a year, and Hultzen is now more enigma than sure thing.
Hultzen was outstanding for the University of Virginia. He was very strong as a freshman in 2009 (9-1, 2.17 ERA, 107/28 K/BB in 95 innings), highly-impressive as a sophomore in '10 (11-1, 2.78, 123/24 K/BB in 107 innings) and even better as a junior (12-3, 1.37 ERA, 165/23 K/BB in 118 innings). Overall, he went 32-5 in 50 college starts, with a 2.08 ERA and a 395/75 K/BB ratio in 320 innings, allowing just 239 hits and 16 homers.
The numbers were great, and his stuff was sharp too, namely a low-to-mid-90s fastball, an outstanding changeup, and a solid slider to go with his pitching sense. He was certainly one of the best college pitchers of his generation. The second-overall pick in 2011, he earned a $6,350,000 bonus. He signed too late to pitch last summer, but performed well in the Arizona Fall League, with an 18/5 K/BB in 19 innings, 16 hits allowed, and a 1.40 ERA. All systems looked "go" entering 2012.
The rocket got off the launch pad with 13 starts for Double-A Jackson this spring, with an 8-3 record and a 1.19 ERA. Well, how can you complain about a 1.19 ERA? He gave up only 38 hits in 75 innings and held hitters to a mere .151 average.
There was a caution flag however, some pogo oscillation in the stack: he walked 32 in those 75 Double-A innings. To put that in context, the 32 walks at Jackson were more walks than he'd given up in an entire college season before. But, hey, he's Danny Hultzen, nothing to worry about, right?
Promoted to Triple-A Tacoma, Hultzen scuffled from the outset, struggling with his command in late June and July. There was some concern about fatigue, so the Mariners gave him the first two weeks of August off to re-set physically and mentally. He had one good start on August 19th, but after that he got hammered, pitching poorly in his last three starts. Overall, he finished 1-4, 5.92 in 12 starts in Triple-A, with a 57/43 K/BB in 49 innings and 49 hits allowed. Pacific Coast League hitters didn't care that his name was Danny Hultzen.
So, where do we go from here? On the positive side, he continued striking hitters out at a strong clip, maintaining a better-than-one-K-per-inning pace even when struggling. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with his stuff; he just couldn't locate it well. According to scouting reports, he got into a "nibbling" habit after he couldn't get hitters to chase pitches that his previous competition would normally go after.
Interviewed by the Washington Times in early July, Hultzen himself talked about this:
"They're very disciplined," Hultzen said. "They have a good approach, which I've had some trouble adjusting to. The level of competition is unlike anything I've seen. If you throw a pitch three or four inches off the plate, it might as well be in the dirt. They're not going to swing at it. You think you make a good pitch, but you're like, ‘How did they not swing at that?' I'm not used to this."
Apparently, he wasn't able to make the necessary adjustments.
So what happens now? Assuming that there is no underlying physical problem, it seems to me like Hultzen is a reasonable bet to rebound. Note I said "reasonable," not "certain." I had him as a Grade A- pre-season and his grade is going to obviously take a hit, how low I don't yet know. He's a real puzzle.
If I were a Mariners fan (or an interested fantasy owner), I wouldn't be in the panic stage. But I wouldn't just brush this off as a non-event either. He's facing the first significant challenge of his professional career, and so far he hasn't overcome it. The fact that he maintained a good strikeout rate is a positive marker, but at this point it is wise to assume that he'll need more Triple-A time. Don't write him into the 2013 rotation yet.