Hayhurst was drafted by the Padres in the eighth-round of the 2003 draft out of Kent State University. As with many smart college pitches without overpowering fastballs but who can change speeds and locate their fastballs, Hayhurst experienced success at the lower levels of the organization.
As he moved up the chain, he also began going through the same problems that most of these types of pitchers also experience, without a big "wipeout pitch," a plus fastball, or secondary pitch; he found himself trying to be too precise and ending up in far too many hitters counts and consequently giving up too many runs.
Usually at this stage, most of these pitchers will just fade away, maybe pitch a year or two in the Independent Leagues and get on with their lives; but something different happened with Hayhurst.
After being moved to the bullpen in San Antonio, he had his best year of his professional career. Hayhurst went 4-1 with a 3.19 ERA. His peripherals were solid with a 55-to-9 strikeout-to-base-on-balls ratio in 59.1 innings as a long reliever and a spot starter, holding batters to a .236 average. This year, he's put up some solid numbers with Beavers, winning the Madfriars.com Pitcher of the Month. He has a 4.41 ERA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League with a 45/8 K/BB ratio holding batters to a .218 batting average.
The reason behind his success? An ability to throw four pitches for strikes and a new found confidence based both on logic and necessity.
Last year, you got a lot of attention in a good way for your writing with Baseball America, The Non-Prospect Diary, but last year at San Antonio was the best year of your career. What was the reason behind your success because you would assume as you higher in the organization it should be more difficult.
Dirk Hayhurst: I've done a lot of thinking about that, and I don't know at what point I transformed last year from a guy that nibbled around the zone to a guy that came into the zone authoritatively. I just started to do it more often. It was a large trust issue because coaches throw all these stats at you, count stats, who is going to hit in what count stats, best ratio of when you are ahead or behind in the count and after a while you just have to start throwing strikes.
When you think about it, guys hit fastballs, but they don't hit well-located fastballs. Most well-located fastballs are down in the zone, and you will be amazed how many times straight fastballs that are located down in the zone will give you positive results. You really have to look at hitters and understand that they are going to fail most of the time, and if you pitch to where they fail most of the time, you are going to have success. The key is not to be scared of throwing the fastball down in the zone and that you don't have to be scared and nibble. I don't do it all the time, but you will be amazed how much your confidence is boosted when you are throwing down in the zone, even in the middle of the plate, and you start to think, ‘Hey, I'm not getting killed.' When I start pitching ahead of batters then you can expand the zone and have success.
That must be pretty tough to get to that point. It's easy for someone to write that you need to throw more strikes but if you don't have some big 95 MPH fastball – no offense
Dirk Hayhurst: [laughing] None taken.
That is pretty difficult to do. Is it as Josh Geer said that if hitters think you are only go to throw to one side of the plate, you are going to get hit.
Dirk Hayhurst: Oh yeah. The key for me is for the hitter to know that he can throw his fastball for a strike, his curveball for a strike, his slider for a strike and the changeup for a strike. When you can establish that, you have guys worried about way more than just hitting the ball. They start thinking about more than just what pitch they are trying to hit, because they know if they don't fight off the other ones, you are going to strike them out. If you put that defensive mentality with the hitter you are going to be more successful than being the guy that is defending. My key to success these past couple years has been me putting the batter on the defensive and being able to throw four pitches for strikes. I don't have plus stuff on any of the four pitches so that is something that I need to be able to do.
It's really unusual for a pitcher to throw four pitches, usually it's you either throw a curve or a slider.
Dirk Hayhurst: I didn't really master the slider until last year. I'm not the type of guy that is going to have great command of all four pitches at all times – I just don't go out there and throw, one, two, three and four – sometimes I may not throw a curveball or that many changeups in an outing, but a batter knows by watching you warm up that you have all four of those pitches, and your catchers know that you have all four of those pitches, it's something that he has to think about. Somebody is standing in that dugout that someone is telling the hitter that he throws this and this, and that he can throw all four for strikes, that helps you.
People start to know who you are and what you throw and you have to be able to use that to your advantage.
Which of your secondary pitches is your best pitch?
Dirk Hayhurst: Man that is a tough question [laughs], I don't even know if I have a best pitch.
Or you could say that you think all four of them are pretty good.
Dirk Hayhurst: Well, on some nights, I have a better slider, on other nights, a better changeup. Some nights I have an extra six inches of run on my two-seamer. I couldn't get drafted on any of these four pitches but all of them combined work. The pitches are more than the sum of their parts and combined they look pretty good. That four pack of pitches looks pretty good, but not all four of them are working any night. My catcher figures that out pretty quick about which ones are working.
One reason that it seems you have been more successful in relief than as a starter is that maybe you don't have enough to go through a lineup multiple times, but as a relief pitcher you have a much greater assortment of pitches than most guys, who usually have one or two at the most.
Dirk Hayhurst: It does help me out a lot. I can come out there and throw one breaking pitch and then save the rest for another night. Or I can throw two, three or four pitches and the batters have to think about that. But the problem is it comes with a great cost. I have to throw a bullpen every day, I have to make sure all of them are downhill, make sure all of them are down in the zone and doing what I need them to do. Without having a wipeout pitch that I can throw over and over again, I have to be able to come out there and mix it up. I'm sure other older wiser pitchers would say the same thing, but I only have my plane of reference to work from, and I have to do that in order to be successful
Other than what we talked about the god Zeus smiling benignly upon you, what can you do that is in your control to have a shot at pitching in the majors?
Dirk Hayhurst: [laughs] I think, for me, I need to continue to throw as many strikes as I can. I'm looking at long relief, middle relief or spot starting. I really don't have closer or setup guy stuff, but I think my durability and consistency are my biggest strengths. I have a rubber arm that bounces back pretty quickly. My versatility is there, but my consistency has to stay or else it doesn't really matter. When I go out there I have to throw strikes because I don't have the type of tool strapped to my right side that says, "It's ok, he's eventually going to figure it out when he gets to the big leagues."
I have to figure it out every time I go out there.