Walker and Hultzen
They were the M’s first picks in consecutive drafts, but other than that (er, and the fact that they’re pitchers), there are very few obvious similarities between Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen. Walker, a right-hander, signed out of high school where he’d been seen by many as a basketball prospect. Hultzen, a lefty, pitched three full seasons for the University of Virginia, going from “Freshman of the Year” in 2009, Pitcher of the year in the ACC in 2010 to, arguably, the most accomplished pitcher in the nation in 2011. Hultzen was a high-school All-America, while Walker was seen as a risky project.
Walker’s stock shot up after signing, as he impressed scouts in instructs, and then showed that the glowing reports weren’t just hype when he debuted in the midwest league. Hultzen, too, moved quickly, and didn’t need to start in instructs. He got his start in the Arizona Fall League, and if he wasn’t the mid-90s, death-dealing change-up guy some scouts saw late in the college season in 2011, he was still really, really difficult to hit. His fastball in particular seemed to give hitters fits, and if his arm angle looked like it’d be easier for righties to pick up, his actual results against righties quickly dispelled that idea. He began his first full pro season in AA, and quickly overwhelmed it. In 13 starts and 75 1/3 innings, Hultzen struck out 79 and gave up an astonishing 38 hits. You could quibble a bit about the walks, but they simply didn’t matter: it seemed like no one could pick up the ball out of his hand.
Walker skipped the gauntlet of High Desert and was assigned to AA for 2012, where he was Hultzen’s teammate for the first half of the year. Sure, he was young, and there was nothing overtly concerning, but Walker faced some adversity for the first time. Command lapses led to problems both with free passes (his walk rate was the same as it had been in the MWL, but he started plunking lots of hitters) and home runs, a bad combination. His natural ability meant that he could get Ks, and thus wasn’t overwhelmed, but whereas he was able to avoid loud contact in the Midwest League, high-minors hitters would punish mistakes. It all added up to an RA/9 of about 5. Not a horrific number for a kid who turned 20 very late in the season, but not what fans of another go-nowhere M’s team wanted to see, either.
Meanwhile, Hultzen hit his first rough patch as well. After blowing away AA, he moved up to Tacoma in June of 2012, making his debut in Colorado Spings, and going just 3 innings, giving up 5 hits and, oddly, 5 walks. It’s the ‘Springs – way more elevation than Denver, and just a weird environment to play in. Slider doesn’t slide. And after joining the team in Tacoma the night before, he’d had to meet the team at 4:30am that day to catch the flight to Colorado. No worries. He made his home debut later in the month against Jamie Moyer, of all people, and struck out two in the first. In the second, he walked three hitters to force in a run. Plenty of pitchers have little command lapses, little mechanical hitches that cause the ball to fly up or to one side. They may walk a batter or two, eliciting a conversation with the catcher or pitching coach to remind them about their front shoulder or something. With Hultzen, it just came on so suddenly and didn’t look like one specific flaw. The consummate control pitcher now had the yips.
Whatever he did in the offseason, he fixed the problem. Hultzen was back with sub-10% walk rates, and was slicing his way through the PCL when he suffered a shoulder injury. We didn’t know it at the time – it was just “dead arm” but that ominous sign was confirmed late in the year when we heard he had labrum damage and underwent surgery. Through it all, though, Hultzen remained accountable, talking to the press even if he had no idea what was going on. There’s a reason people like Ryan Divish and Shannon Drayer write about Hultzen the way they do. He had competitiveness that never slid into cockiness – an aggressive demeanor on the mound, coupled with a thoughtful, contemplative nature off of it.
Walker, too, fixed whatever was troubling him in 2012, and if he was still giving up more HRs than you’d like, he was 20 and occasionally dominant in AA. Promoted to AAA, Walker ran into occasional trouble with his control, but his strikeout rate was still great, and he was pitching around a very high BABIP admirably. At the end of the year, he made his M’s debut, a ray of hope in another sunk season. In the 2.5 years since, we’ve seen the same basic pattern. Walker takes a step forward, has to regroup and refocus a bit, consolidate and incorporate what he’s learning into some adjustment, and then he’s off again.
Yesterday, Walker hit 98mph with his fastball, and seemed to be on top of it a bit more, leading to less horizontal movement and more rise. Whether it was that more up-and-down plane, a slight change in his position on the rubber, or just facing some Royals scrubs, Walker’s splitter looked otherworldly. It sat at 89-91, touching nearly 92 at one point. The pitch is a change-up, and it was sitting in the low-90s. The Royals couldn’t really touch it, and didn’t put one in play. Walker’s curve looked better, too. This was a pitch he all but abandoned at times last year in favor of a cutter, but Walker located his big hook yesterday and actually shelved the cutter, at least for one start. It’s easy to talk about Walker’s 2015 as a tale of two halves, but within each half, Walker would sprinkle great outings and disasters. Games like yesterday’s offer a glimpse of his potential – of what he could be if he could reliably command the ball. It’s spring training, it was just 3 IP, I know. But that’s what spring is for, right, to take a quick look at a player or a prospect and say, “yes, I’ve seen enough that hope doesn’t feel forced, something you do because it’s a cliche and you miss baseball – it feels natural, logical, obvious, correct.”
Yesterday, Danny Hultzen was shut down with soreness in his left shoulder. Again. Scott Servais says Hultzen is “evaluating his options.” This, too, is another rite of spring. The oft-injured player who’s fought so hard to get back, who’s dedicated himself to training or rehab or changing his lifestyle, only to see it blow up in the crucible of camp. We always talk about spring training as a time of hope, but in reality, it’s February or January where things really feel limitless: Hultzen was moving to the bullpen, where there’d be less stress on his arm. Mark Lowe is back, and scouts say he looks impressive. Carlos Quentin’s healthy again, and he signed a no-risk minor league deal with the M’s! Sometimes, these stories become better after Spring Training, but many of them don’t survive; they’re just opening sentences in unfinished, discarded drafts. Baseball is cruel, and because spring training is a time when the population of players is at its highest, it’s probably the single cruelest place and time on the baseball calendar.
This isn’t about draft strategy or “safe” picks versus upside. Hultzen and Walker turned out to be equally competitive and equally coachable, two traits that helped them move up the minor league ranks. It was expected from Hultzen, and perhaps not as expected of Walker, but for a team whose player development group had been something of a disaster, their work with Hultzen and Walker is pretty impressive. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to “save” Hultzen, as if such a thing is even possible. The M’s thought they’d ID’d the problem in Hultzen’s stride, and his throwing across his body, but Hultzen’s had problems after that “fix” and there’s nothing obviously problematic about his motion, either the new one or the one he used to demolish the Southern League. People who know pitching far more than I do are working to identify weakness in the shoulder and elbow before the tendons are pushed past the breaking point, but we’re never going to wipe injuries out entirely. If the M’s didn’t catch Hultzen’s injury early in 2013, they also didn’t just have him pitch through it. This is *hard* and I’m not sure there’s much point in assigning blame. The point is Hultzen may be at the point where he’s thinking about something other than baseball, and if so, I wish him well, and hope other M’s pitchers learn a bit from his example. I think Walker already has.
Oh, hey, there’s a Cactus League game today. M’s play the Cubs in Peoria, with Bellarmine Prep’s Jon Lester on the hill for Chicago. Wade Miley gets the ball for the Mariners, and the first pitch is scheduled for 12:10.
1: Aoki, CF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Romero, LF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Sanchez, DH
7: Smith, RF
8: Lucas, 3B
9: Clevenger, C
The Cubs line-up features Javier Baez, the talk of spring 2 years ago, Kyle Schwarber, one of the breakout stars of the Cubs’ great 2015, and Kris Bryant, the talk of spring last year, and yet another breakout star – God damn it, writing about the Cubs must be fun right about now.
Looks like we’ll see Joaquin Benoit and lefty Paul Fry among the relievers after Miley. Very interested to see if Fry’s the guy we saw in the regular season last year, or the somewhat underwhelming version in the AFL. If it’s the former, Fry’s a guy who could reach the majors quite quickly.