Danny Hultzen has become a bit of a forgotten prospect for the Seattle Mariners.
The left-hander -- who came into the organization as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, labeled as a "near-MLB ready" arm way back then -- owns a 2.82 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10.0 SO/9 in 32 starts in his minor league career to date. But the most important stat to most when it comes to Hultzen is a number that currently sits just under 400; that is the number of days it has been since he has thrown a pitch in a regular season minor league game for the Mariners.
After being pulled from his brief start on September 1st of 2013, Hultzen -- who had missed most of the previous 4 1/2 months with soreness and fatigue that was usually labeled as "discomfort" or "trouble getting loose" -- went to visit the foremost authority on pitching injuries, Dr. James Andrews, who informed the then 23-year-old and his parent club that he was in need of pretty extensive surgery. The surgeon, the pitcher and the club found out just how extensive when Andrews went in to make the repair: There was labrum damage, a partial tear to his rotator cuff and a torn anterior capsule. Each of those ailments a major injury on their own, the combination of the three was a punch to the gut. It meant that both the accelerator and decelerator functions of his arm had been damaged. The injury and the surgery were rather rare in the baseball world, being similar to what current Mariners pitcher Chris Young and former Twins and Mets star Johan Santana, among only a handful of others, have had.
But all things considered, Hultzen is coming along exactly how the Mariners envisioned he would a year ago. "Any surgery is traumatic, obviously," said Mariners' rehab pitching coordinator Gary Wheelock, who has been Hultzen's shadow much of the last year, "so the recovery is something that we don't rush. But I'd say Danny is right on schedule."
Just a year after the surgery was performed, Hultzen is quietly putting his work in, following all of the advice from the Mariners rehabilitation staff and focusing on recovery from the injury. But the good thing to find in speaking with him and others in the organization is that he isn't letting the injury define him, isn't letting it get him too down, and that the talented lefty is proving that he's determined to make it back better than ever from the surgery.
From what Hultzen has already shown, throwing three simulated games over the past few weeks, Wheelock has seen that determination play out first hand. "He's better at this point than I thought he'd be, as he faced some hitters in the past couple of weeks and he's throwing very, very well, " the coach said. "It's very exciting for me and for everybody here to see how well he's doing. We're all excited to see where he is right now, but I know having had surgery myself that you aren't really at full strength for that first year."
Having worked with and around so many current and former players who had to battle back from injuries of their own, Hultzen has found some silver linings during his rehab. "The injury made me realize just how lucky I've been my entire life, to just be able to play baseball and to get to be able to do what I love, and to not have to have a real job, really," Hultzen told me last Thursday when I got a chance to speak with him on the phone from Arizona. He continued, "I've been lucky with that the last...however many years; getting to do what I love injury free. Especially as we see the number of guys who went down just this year alone with Tommy John. This is just something that happens, and it just happened to be me this time. And I'm fine with that."
Yes, Danny Hultzen -- rehabbing from a very rare, and perhaps career-threatening injury -- is fine with the hand he's been dealt and considers himself lucky in all of this.
The somewhat slow and slightly painful way that he got to this point was frustrating for fans, frustrating for the organization and frustrating for Danny. He says that, given what he now knows about the injury and the anatomy of his arm, he thinks that the capsule went first and that he worsened the injury by throwing through it, but that he, quote, "didn't really have a lot of pain", so he tried to work through it. So when Andrews broke the news to him about how extensive the injury was, the immediate shock was huge to Hultzen, but he overcame that emotion quickly with some great maturity.
"Sure, right when the injury happened I was pretty down on myself, but these things happen," Hultzen said. And continuing, offering a glimpse into Danny Hultzen the person, he said, "It's tough when it's taken away from you, but if it happens, it happens. I just realized early on that if you think of it negatively like that, it's going to make the process that much harder. And it is already a tough process."
Hultzen’s positive outlook on his situation has really impressed those around him. Wheelock, himself a former big leaguer who had arm surgery in his playing days, said that Danny’s attitude every day has been very encouraging. "When you’re Danny Hultzen and there are expectations from the outside that go along with your own, it can be even harder." Indeed, there are those that have slammed the organization for selecting Hultzen now that he missed the 2014 season, and Wheelock knows that can get to some players. "It's tough to keep positive and keep pushing when you're not playing, " Wheelock said. "There aren't many players with Danny's ability to stay positive and continue to work hard with a great attitude," when faced with this sort of an injury challenge, he added.
For his part, Hultzen seems rather nonchalant with his own attitude, as if there is no other option. "I've done everything that I can to make myself the baseball player that I am now and I'm not going to let this one injury change me into a person with a negative mindset," he said. "I'm going to keep taking it day by day, and keep my eye on the prize, which is having a healthy arm again."
Having met Danny in person before and having had the opportunity to talk with him when everything was going well in his career, when I interviewed him prior to the 2012 season, the thing that struck me when speaking with him again now -- as he continues to trudge down the long road of recovery -- was that he was basically the exact same upbeat young man. And that is something that everyone who knows him and has been around him throughout this process echoes.
"That's probably the best thing about Danny," said Wheelock. "He's been so upbeat and he's a tremendous worker. Probably the best work ethic of any player that I've ever had. It's tough to keep positive and keep pushing when you're not playing. There aren't many players with Danny's ability to stay positive and continue to work hard with a great attitude," he said. Another high ranking M's staffer echoed that earlier this year. "His attitude is great," Tom McNamara told Jackson's Chris Harris back in July. "If there is one kid that can make it back from that [surgery] it's Hultzen. He's tough as nails," said the M's Scouting Director.
Tough as nails and smart, too. Hultzen seems very cognizant of what his mental state can do for his rehab. "I've seen some guys who come in every day and sort of hang their heads, with the, 'why me' look on their faces all the time," Hultzen said, "But I feel that if you think of yourself as a victim, you're not going to make it back from that."
When I asked Danny how he manages to keep that attitude when faced with this tough challenge, he said, "It sounds corny, but it's the power of positivity," said Hultzen. "I know that I'm going to put myself in the best position possible to make it back the best I can from this. If I have a rough day or whatever I know that I just have to stay on track with the plan and continue to work hard towards the ultimate goal."
When Danny Hultzen -- who was not included in the SeattleClubhouse post-season Top-35 Prospects piece last month -- does make it back onto a mound, he won't look exactly the same. The organization made some changes to his delivery, lessening what was a somewhat exaggerated cross-body delivery that was caused by a landing spot with his front foot that was 18 inches towards first base. Now, Hultzen and Wheelock say that the club has worked hard and trimmed about a foot off of that, with the goal being to eliminate some of the stress off of Hultzen's arm.
So was the delivery part of the problem? No one would come right out and say that, but they did recognize that changes would be beneficial to Hultzen's arm health. "We've been working on his delivery and we think that, mechanically, there is definitely a less stressful delivery on your arm. But when you look around the big leagues, not everyone has that 'perfect delivery'. There are plenty of guys who have great deliveries in baseball who can't get hitters out because hitters see the ball so well, so there is a balance there, so that element of deception that comes into play -- like Charlie Furbush, for instance -- is perhaps a big reason why that pitcher is successful.""Danny did have some things that we felt were a little more stressful on his arm -- throwing across his body, probably a good 18 inches -- so we've been working on that with him and he's now probably more like four or five inches. He's also been working on getting a little bit better load in his delivery; staying back, using a little bit more legs and upper body and not so much arm. And he's done a really nice job with that. His arm angle is the same with that low three-quarters slot, so I think he'll still have that deception in there," Wheelock concluded.
Mechanical tweaks happen all the time with pitchers, those coming back from injury and those who are perfectly healthy. But Hultzen has had quite a while to work on his new delivery and is confident in and comfortable with the changes at this point. "I think that's going to help out, for sure," said Hultzen. "I think I was actually doing it [throwing across his body more] before because it didn't hurt my arm quite as much, as it was a little more natural for me and the way that I throw. But I feel like I'm in a much better spot with it [his landing spot] now."
Hultzen is more conscious of his delivery now, more aware of how the mechanical parts of him throwing the ball all work together. "Healthy or not, honing in on that release point and working hard, mechanically, to be consistent with your delivery is something that every pitcher works on," he said. "I guess the good part for me is that I didn't have to make this change in a start or a week or whatever -- I've had a year. It started way back when I first started throwing from 30 feet with a tennis ball to Gary with no glove, like I was 8-years-old, I was practicing on stepping straight and every single day since then I've been working on that. And it's gone well so far."
So where does that leave Hultzen in terms of the bigger picture of things, like 2015? General Manager Jack Zduriencik spoke highly about the progress that the lefty has already made and how he looked in his sim games, but cautioned that the work isn't yet done for him. "They said it was really impressive," Zduriencik told reporters yesterday at the Mariners' post-season Media wrap-up. "He feels really good and is now shut down. He's finished for the fall. He showed an average fastball, really good curve and changeup. He was confident and his delivery is sound. So he'll go home and come back in January and be ready for Spring Training. There was some talk of putting him in the Fall League, but we're going to back off a little. This kid has been through a lot this year."
So the work will stop for now. But come next January, when Hultzen comes into camp and starts revving up to let it go on the mound, how is he anticipating that will go? "That's a tough thing. I think most of it is mental, because I remember how bad it hurt to let it go and throw it hard a year ago. There is still a little bit of that in there, for sure. I'm at about 80% right now, I think, so I haven't quite tested those boundaries, but I'd say that is going to be a very difficult battle because of that uncertainty of just not really knowing what it is going to be like."
One discovery that Hultzen, Wheelock and the Mariners made throughout this process is that his slurvy slider -- which was at times a very dominant pitch for him, to both left-handed and right-handed hitters -- has become more of a curveball. "I think it is more just a result of me stepping straight. I think that before I was really getting behind it more, but now I'm getting on top of it a little bit more and getting a little more depth to it. I haven't changed my grip and I think the velocity is going to be about the same, maybe even a little harder than before, but I think just straightening out has really helped my breaking ball."
Still, there is no guarantee that the new Hultzen will enjoy the same type of success on the field that the old Hultzen did. But regardless of the outcome from here forward, Danny has a tremendous amount to be thankful for. "My support comes from a lot of people and this whole process has really helped me to become more aware of how lucky I am to have the people in my life that I do," he said. "My family has been awesome, the support of my mom, my dad and my brother for starters. My mom and dad were there when I had my surgery and they wheeled me around in my wheelchair." Family and friends outside of baseball have been there for Hultzen, but he also feels a closer bond to the coaches he's been working with in Arizona. "The training staff has just been unbelievable," said Danny. "Jimmy Southard, Ben Frazier, Wheels [Gary Wheelock] -- they have all been awesome. And it's been great to be able to hang out with Gary so much."
Danny Hultzen may have become somewhat of a forgotten prospect for the Mariners, but he has not forgotten why he loves this game so much and what his ultimate goal is. "[The past year] hasn't changed my outlook. The way I look at it, this is just a speed bump on the way to becoming a major league pitcher someday soon, I just didn't get to play this year. It's been a long road and I definitely got a little emotional after that first simulated game when I first got to face hitters again because that was such a huge step," he said, finishing with, "I'm just very happy to be able to play baseball again."
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