Robert Hinton didn't enter professional baseball with stardom written all over his resume, but that doesn't mean he hasn't carried high expectations for himself.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound right-hander has overcome injuries and bided his time during a four-year climb up Milwaukee's farm system ladder in hopes of realizing his dream of reaching the big leagues.
And the Florida native is confident that he's ready to take that next—and biggest—step.
"Up to this point I've just been focused on getting better and not worrying about the stats," Hinton told BrewerUpdate.com recently. "It's been a matter of experimenting and learning to find what works with my mechanics and understanding what my body can do. I've been working on commanding my fastball. My changeup has come along and has been pretty good against lefties but has tended to stay up versus righties. But it's something that I can pull out of my back pocket if I need it."
But Hinton's known for his slider—or slurve as many folks call it—which Baseball America has called the best in the Brewers' organization.
"The way I pitch I feel like I'm best suited for the bullpen because I get a lot of strikeouts with my slider," Hinton said. "I actually started with a curveball in high school, but I amped it up and everybody kept asking me what that pitch was. It became my slider because it's thrown much harder."
Hinton is hoping that the rest of his repertoire catches up to his out pitch: His heater averages 90-91 mph but has reached 93 or 94 occasionally. His slider comes in between 84 and 87 and the change registers about 80.
So, if those things click, he's confident that he'll make big strides this summer and is looking forward to a bright future despite rather obscure beginnings.
He was a good athlete, playing shortstop and center field when not pitching, at Riverside High School in Sarasota, where he made the varsity as a freshman. But he pulled a hamstring while running the bases as a junior and because he was more valuable on the mound, that's where he stayed exclusively after that.
Milwaukee selected Hinton in the 40th round in June 2003 under the old draft-and-follow setup, which allowed him to attend Manatee Junior College for a year to hone his skills.
"Actually, the Brewers were down here to watch another kid, but I won the game and the Milwaukee scout talked to me and kept in touch," Hinton said. "Well, I pitched pretty well in JC and signed the next year.
"At that time my fastball was only 84 to 85 mph, but I put on weight and worked out at the IMG Academies and I started to hit 90 mph that next year, which is quite a jump," Hinton said. "I could have gone to a bigger college, and the Angels, Astros and Cubs showed interest, but because the Brewers had drafted me, they had my rights and I couldn't talk to anybody else. But I'm happy I signed, and this always has been a good organization."
Hinton has taken a slow but steady journey, pitching at Helena in 2004, West Virginia in '05 and Brevard County in '06, the latter campaign ending with his participation in the Hawaii Winter League.
"My first couple of weeks in pro ball were spent in Arizona, where my first start came against the Rangers," Hinton recalled. "There was nobody in the stands and it was usually 120 degrees, but I was pumped for that. Then I went to Helena, and they had great fans. The biggest change for me was that no matter where you went, to a restaurant, bar or the mall, everybody knew who you were. I didn't have any problems because I didn't go out a lot, but you had to be careful. On the field, even though it was a short season, you were facing college guys and everybody threw in the 90s. But it was also the first time (hitters) with wooden bats, so pitchers often had the advantage. You had to get used to the bus rides, but it was a great experience.
"At West Virginia, that's when you knew you were a real pro athlete because those guys were good and it was a full 140-game schedule," Hinton added. "I probably showed the greatest improvement that season because you could train and focus on your skills the whole day. The grind was tough, but the Charleston fans were awesome. Then in 2006 it was pretty neat at Brevard County because I live in Florida and even got to play in Sarasota."
After working in short relief in rookie ball, Hinton was stretched out to long relief at West Virginia. Then because of injuries and promotions, he moved into a starting role during the second half of 2006.
"That was pretty interesting and quite a challenge, but I thought I performed pretty well," he said. "And then going to Hawaii was incredible. That was probably the coolest two months of my pro career. There was unbelievable talent out there; almost everybody was in Baseball America's top 100. I actually started our first game, but then a couple of days later they said I was going back to the 'pen. But we ran away with it with me, Zach Hammes of the Dodgers and former Brewer prospect Joe Thatcher in relief."
Hinton then endured injury woes while at Huntsville each of the last two years, which required trips back down to the Florida State League's Manatees for rehab and to build his innings back up.
He strained a lat muscle in 2007 but helped the Stars reach the playoffs, while a strained muscle in his forearm derailed the middle of his '08 campaign, forcing him to the disabled list for six weeks.
But the amiable Hinton said all of his travels and experiences have helped him grow on and off the diamond.
"I would love to pitch at Triple-A this year, but when it comes down to it there isn't a big difference between that and Double-A because a lot of guys go straight from Double-A to the majors," Hinton said. "So, if I'm at Huntsville again, that will be fine. I feel like I've done all of the work up to this point, that the development stage is almost over. Now it's a matter of bringing all of my tools together, doing what I do and focusing on the results. I know what I need to do and know what I can and can't do, so I'm pretty excited and looking forward to this season."