Long road brings Hamilton to Rangers

Clayton Hamilton recently finished off his second year with the Texas Rangers' system, but it was a long and winding road that brought him there. Lone Star Dugout sat down with the 27-year-old right-hander for a Q&A session.

The Texas Rangers acquired right-hander Clayton Hamilton via the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft prior to the 2008 campaign. Hamilton had been pitching in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization for two previous seasons.

Since joining the Rangers' system, Hamilton has spent two full seasons pitching between High-A Bakersfield, Double-A Frisco, and Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Hamilton's journey to professional baseball was not exactly normal. The majority of professional baseball players not only grow up with baseball as their primary focus, but they are also generally the best and most widely recognized players in their area. Hamilton, however, did not even consider baseball his athletic priority until very late in his youth.

We sat down with Hamilton to discuss his unique story, and we'll let the 27-year-old tell it in his own words.

Jason Cole: I want to start by going all the way to the beginning for you. As I understand it, you were a quarterback in high school, and a pretty good one. Did you get any scholarship offers?

Clayton Hamilton: I had a ton of Division II offers in football. I had one potential DI offer—Bowling Green. It was possibly in the works or whatever. But I ended up blowing out my knee during the first game of the season, and I ended up missing like six games. So at that point, pretty much all those went away. A couple of smaller schools, D3 or whatever, said, ‘Hey, you can play for us.' But I wasn't really that big then either. I was probably 6-foot-1 and maybe 170. So that's how it all started out.

I was going to be a football player, then I came back and started pitching that year in legion ball. I started pitching there and started throwing the ball better and better. I think I topped out at 87. I only had one baseball offer. It was a D3 school—Penn State Behrend. Up in Erie. You probably don't know what that is.

I ended up getting into Penn State for academics. That's where my brother went, so I was like, ‘I'm just going to go there and I'll walk on to the team there.' One day I sent them a video—just a little video of me pitching—and they said, ‘Hey, you don't have to be a walkon. You can be an invited walkon, so you can come to the team and you don't have to try out.' I made the team and played all four years there.

Cole: In high school, did you know that baseball was going to be your deal? Did you completely give up hope of playing football?

Hamilton: I know that football—I wasn't going to be the best quarterback out there. I was decent—I was serviceable. We had a pretty good team. I kind of knew once I started pitching better and better. Even though I didn't get any offers—probably because it was late in the summer. Legion ball is from June to August.

I kind of knew then—I had a pretty good breaking ball—that maybe baseball was the route that I should go if I'm going to play a sport in college. I liked baseball a lot too. Just as much as football. So either way, it was fine.

Cole: At what point did your knee start to heal and start to feel good again?

Hamilton: That was the thing. I missed most of high school ball with the same knee injury. I'd say probably mid-June or July, when summer school was out. I just started to rest it up. Like I said, I started throwing harder and started doing pretty well. We went to the state tournament and I ended up getting pitcher of the state for the tournament and all this stuff. That's when I knew that pitching was probably my future and not football.

Cole: When you did get healthy and you were at Penn State, did you ever have any thoughts of trying to walk on to the football team as well?

Hamilton: In my dreams, yeah. They were pretty bad. One year I was there was the worst season JoePa has ever had probably. I think they were 5-6 and I was thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could go out for the team.' But that was kind of unrealistic. I didn't really think of it that way.

Cole: Tell me about your college career. You came in without a whole lot of experience, so how much did you improve during your years at Penn State?

Hamilton: You could probably say I went downhill in college. My first college start was against Texas A&M at their place. I was a freshman and I ended up going like six or seven shutout innings. It's pretty hard to go up from there.

I learned a lot in college. I had a good time, made a lot of good friends. Pitching-wise, I wasn't the best pitcher. I didn't realize that you can't throw 94 past everybody at the belt. So that's kind of when I got to pro ball, I learned that lesson in a hurry. People were telling me to get the ball down.

But in college, I had a great time. I had a great group of friends that were there. That's why I went back for my senior year. I got drafted by the Pirates, and I was having a lot of fun with my friends. I wanted to finish my degree because that's pretty important to me as well. That's why I went there in the first place.

I ended up going back and I did a little better my senior year, but I ended up getting hit with a line drive like a month before the draft and broke my foot of course. So I missed the last three weeks and the Big 10 Tournament and all that stuff. I ended up getting drafted by the Padres, went to Arizona to rehab there for about a month, and then went up to Eugene.

Cole: As you said, your first college start was in College Station against Texas A&M. I know the atmosphere there is a little bit different, a little bit crazy. What was that like?

Hamilton: It was unbelievable. And they were all over me. My dad and my brother actually flew down for the game and they hadn't seen any college baseball games either. They just were in shock.

Honestly, the coolest part about it was that I was a freshman. I actually threw the night before—one inning in relief. My first inning in college ball. And then I started the next day and I think it was six shutout. They were ranked number four at the time.

When I walked off the field—they were murdering me the whole time—they actually gave me a standing ovation. I was walking off and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.' It kind of sets in that this is another level. It was good.

After spending four years at Penn State, Hamilton was selected by San Diego in the 17th round of the 2004 MLB Draft.

Hamilton's 2005 season—his first full professional campaign—was highlighted by his 9-6 record and 2.88 earned-run average in 20 starts with Single-A Fort Wayne.

Prior to the 2006 season, with Hamilton having officially broken out as a prospect, the Padres traded the pitcher to his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Hamilton struggled with injuries in his two seasons with High-A Lynchburg, and he posted a 6.36 earned-run average in 15 starts in 2007.

Cole: It seemed like you had some bad luck with injuries in high school and college. Since you've been in pro ball, how many injuries have you had?

Hamilton: Just one. I got traded to the Pirates and pitched the first half of the season as a starter. I was throwing the ball really well. I was pitching against the Indians, threw a slider, and it was just something you've never felt before. You know as soon as you did it.

The next inning, I went out—it was the fourth and I hadn't given up any runs and it was a seven-inning game. I remember because Max Ramirez was there for the Indians. I was trying to throw—I was probably throwing 80 mph—but I actually threw BP fastballs down the middle and I got three popups on high pitches. Then I went in and I was like, ‘I'm done. Something's wrong.'

I pulled my oblique and it took a year to figure out what was really going on. For a long time, I thought it was a muscle thing or a cartilage tear. It ended up being two tumors in my ribcage. I got surgery two Novembers ago—right before the Rule 5 Draft actually. Ever since then, I've been good to go.

Cole: How serious was that to your health at the time?

Hamilton: It wasn't cancerous or anything like that. They said there was a 95 percent change it wasn't. They said, ‘The only thing that is going to affect you is that it can keep getting bigger. So it's better now to take it out and make sure it is not bad, even though it is probably not.'

Even when I golf or anything involving rotation, it just felt like something was stabbing me every time. But we got those out of there. He said a lot of the muscles in there were kind of getting shredded up, too, because it was in the bone. The tumor was in the bone, so it was kind of expanding and fraying those muscles. It was good to get it out of there, but no, health-wise it wasn't a big risk.

Cole: Did they say how long it had been developing? I know you said it just kind of happened one day while you were pitching.

Hamilton: No. They said they see it a lot of times and they don't know why it happens. They don't know how long it was there. He just said that it might have been there for awhile and I just noticed it on that one particular pitch. The sports doctor said he hadn't seen it before in baseball. He said there was really no precedent for how it should be handled or what caused it or anything like that.

Hamilton pitches with Frisco in 2009

Hamilton was on the road to recovery between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, and his future with the Pirates was in question.

Back in 2004, when Hamilton was drafted by the Padres, he was signed by brand-new scout Josh Boyd. In fact, Hamilton was the first player Boyd ever signed.

Now, Boyd is a front office executive for the Rangers, working as their assistant director of professional scouting.

When Hamilton became eligible for the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft two offseasons ago, it was Boyd who recommended the pitcher once again, and the Rangers eventually selected him.

The 6-foot-5, 205-pound hurler was dominant with High-A Bakersfield in 2008, and after some initial struggles with Double-A Frisco, he finished on a high note.

This season, Hamilton bounced between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma City, putting up a cumulative 4.46 ERA in 70.2 innings. He made 35 relief appearances and five starts.

The hurler uses a fastball that generally ranges between 88-93 mph [he throws both sinkers and four-seam fastballs], a good slider, and an improving splitter.

Cole: The Rangers selected you in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft prior to the 2008 season. When you came into that Spring Training, how close were you to being 100 percent?

Hamilton: The Rangers told me to report to Arizona on February 2nd. I flew out on the day of the Super Bowl to do rehab. I would say when I got to Arizona on the 2nd—I hadn't thrown yet and I was probably about 40 percent when I got there.

?Between February 2nd and when Spring Training started in early March—in that month of time, I probably got up to 80 percent. Then by the end of Spring Training—I didn't break camp last year; I missed a week I think. By the end of camp, I was probably like 90 percent.

My arm strength was down a little bit. I went to Bakersfield and threw a lot of sinkers and things like that. I got a lot of ground balls. I would say I didn't get back to 100 percent until probably mid-July here in Frisco. Maybe late-July.

Cole: I know you're throwing a four-seam fastball, slider, and splitter right now. Do you still throw the sinker?

Hamilton: When I start I probably throw 30 percent sinkers. Last year, I threw all sinkers.

Cole: I saw a start earlier this year where you pitched into the sixth inning with Frisco. When was the last time you did that?

Hamilton: Probably maybe like May of 2007. I pitched in '07, and if you look, my numbers were really bad. I was pretty much hurt that whole year. I was trying to pitch with it, and it wasn't going well. So the last time I legitimately went six was in 2006 probably.

Cole: One thing I noticed from that start was that you threw a lot of sliders in the first inning. Then you came out afterwards and started attacking with your fastball. Was that on purpose?

Hamilton: Yeah. I was kicking myself in the first inning because I'm better than that pitching-wise from a mental standpoint. I made some bad pitch selections. I got greedy going for strikeouts with my slider, which is usually my pitch. I got a little greedy and I didn't make the pitch where I needed it, and they hit the flares that they scored on. That's when I said to myself, ‘Alright, just get outs.' And that's when I went right to the fastball.

Cole: You got your first taste of Triple-A ball this year and pitched pretty well even with the back injury. How was it?

Hamilton: It was quite an experience. A lot of older guys with a lot of experience, so I tried to do as much learning as I could—picking up things here and there and picking at some guys' brains in the bullpen. Guys like Brian Gordon and A.J. Murray—guys who have been around for awhile. But all in all, it was good. I just want to keep learning and pick up as much as I can.

Cole: You've done some starting this season both at Double-A and Triple-A. You've done some late-inning relieving, middle relief, and long relief. What is the plan?

Hamilton: Honestly, I just take it a couple of days at a time. I'm just trying to help the team. If they need me to eat innings as a starter, I'll do so. Same with in the bullpen. I just like to throw every other day or every day—I just like to get out there. I kind of like the crunch at the end of the game. I don't know why, but I've always been that way. I just do whatever I can to help the team win.

Cole: Was there any sort of an adjustment period coming up from Double-A? Was there a big difference? I know it didn't really show in the numbers.

Hamilton: Yeah, actually there is a pretty big difference between Double- and Triple-A from what I've seen thus far. A lot of the hitters in Triple-A have a lot of big league time and experience, so they've seen it all. There is no tricking them. It's a lot more of a mental game than it is in Double-A.

Cole: You told me in Frisco earlier in the year that you prefer pitching out of the bullpen. What is it about the bullpen that you like so much?

Hamilton: I'm not sure exactly what it is. I started for a long time. But I think with the bullpen, you can come out and be more aggressive right off the bat—especially with throwing your breaking ball. It is definitely something that I feel is a strength of mine, my breaking pitch and throwing it for strikes. It kind of fits me well in that regard.

Cole: I also saw you get a save in Triple-A this season. What is the closing like compared to the rest of the work you do?

Hamilton: Going out there in the ninth inning is a different beast, to an extent. You need to try and not only get ahead early, but get ahead with quality pitches. You don't have the luxury of throwing one down the middle and hoping that they don't hit it. You've got to really start aggressive and stay aggressive. There is no lax period.

Cole: Does it feel a little different even when you're warming up and coming in for the ninth than it does for, say, the seventh inning?

Hamilton: No, I don't think it feels any different. I get ready the same way no matter when I'm going to pitch. Maybe a little different for starting. But in general, you do the same routine over and over. Then, when you get out there, you adjust your mental approach to the situation.

Cole: In that outing where you got the save, I don't believe you threw any sinkers, did you?

Hamilton: Generally I tend to use sinkers if I throw more innings at a time. I try to stick with the four-seam if I'm going for one inning and I try to locate that. Like I said, you've got to stay aggressive with good pitches. The sinker is very hard to locate to a spot, especially glove-side for most sinkerballers. I try to stick with the four-seam if I'm coming in later in the game.

Cole: I know especially around the second-half of the season, you got rid of the changeup and re-added your splitter. Is that something you were using quite a bit?

Hamilton: The splitter has been coming along pretty good since I brought it back when I got to Triple-A. Terry Clark said, ‘Hey, start throwing the splitter again against lefties.' It has really helped me out. I've used it mostly to lefties and I've gotten a few righties out on it. It is a pitch that I need to develop to get to where I want to go.

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