Being left in Arizona for extended spring training as opposed to breaking with a full-season team in April was not how right-handed pitcher Dustin Hurlbutt pictured things would go. But the Oakland A’s 16th-round selection in the 2015 draft remained patient and kept working hard, and his time eventually came with a call-up to Beloit in early June.
Since he arrived in the Midwest League, Hurlbutt has not only been tasked with learning a new level of professional ball but also transitioning back into being a starter.
"I know at extended they wanted to make me a starter, so they were upping my innings and pitch count,” Hurlbutt said. “We had a starting pitcher go down there, so I took over that role. I was a starting pitcher in college, so it was an easy transition from the bullpen to a starter because I had done it. I went back to the routine of what I had done."
Entering Sunday’s appearance at home against Burlington, Hurlbutt had run off three consecutive quality outings in which he’d combined to allow just two earned runs on 15 hits in 15.1 innings. He’s also posted an impressive 12:2 K:BB rate in those three appearances. On Sunday, Hurlbutt came on in relief and allowed four runs in four innings. He struck-out four and walked three.
Hurlbutt has a 3.15 ERA over his first 34.1 innings of full-season ball. He’s made a total of nine appearances (five starts) in 2016 and has allowed just 12 earned runs on 33 hits. He’s struck out 32 and walked just seven, leading to a 1.17 WHIP.
The Beloit starter, who throws both four-seam and two-seam fastballs that sit between 90 and 94 miles-per-hour along with a circle change-up and slider, says he is currently on a pitch count of 90 for the next few starts.
Hurlbutt said he hasn’t had to alter much in his approach on the mound, saying that if anything, the increased work load has made his stuff even sharper.
"I haven't really had to make many adjustments,” he said. “I'm just sticking to my gameplan. We have the reports on the other guys we review before the game and I stick to the plan. I like my secondary pitches and am probably throwing a little more of them now.
“Everything is still there and feeling good. I've been pretty consistent, starting and relieving. I'm challenging myself to throw more first-pitch strikes, going out there and competing, getting to them early, and having a good tempo to the game. I want to control the things I can control."
Instead of just being a thrower out of the bullpen like he felt he was early on, Hurlbutt said he’s had to develop his mental game a little more.
"Instead of just coming in out of the bullpen throwing hard every pitch, now you have to save yourself throwing more innings and more pitches,” he said. “You're in control of the game and are in charge of the tempo of it. Coming out of the pen, you have to have a high intensity and shut the game down. You have to think a little more as a starter."
The plan, at least in the short-term, is for Hurlbutt to increase his stamina even more and remain a member of the Snappers’ rotation.
"He's doing a really good job transitioning from where he was when he first came here, being primarily used out of the bullpen to being put in the rotation,” said Beloit manager Fran Riordan. “He started off with a pretty low pitch count and he's built that up as his starts have progressed.
“He flashes a good fastball with good movement. His breaking ball is an above-average pitch when he throws it the right way. He throws some good change-ups as well. He's got a good three-pitch mix and the organization wants to see what he can do as a starter."
Hurlbutt hopes to continue his run of good starts to finish out the season, and then have no worries about being left in Mesa next spring when minor-league team assignments are handed out.