Hultzen at ease in first big league experience
Young left-hander impressive during early camp sessions
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Watching Danny Hultzen on the hill, you'd have a hard time imagining this is a youngster in his first Major League camp, having yet to pitch a single inning even of Minor League ball.
The No. 2 overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft has fit easily into the mix with Mariners pitchers in his initial professional experience. Hultzen signed too late to pitch in the Minors last summer, so the closest thing he has on his resume is a half-dozen starts in the Arizona Fall League.
You'd never know that looking at the cool southpaw, however, as he's gone quietly about his business in the first week of camp.
"I was kind of surprised by how comfortable I've been," Hultzen acknowledged. "Being my first Spring Training, I kind of expected those nerves to be there. But I've been pleasantly surprised. Everyone has been really nice and accommodating."
While it might be tough for the 23-year-old to make the Major League club coming straight out of the University of Virginia, the Mariners aren't ruling anything out. He and James Paxton are both premier left-handed prospects who'll get long looks this spring.
"Last year at this time, Michael Pineda had never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues," said pitching coach Carl Willis. "You can say the same for a Paxton or a Hultzen. Pineda did have 8-10 starts at Triple-A, so there was a little more there than these guys have done yet. But that's not to say that has to be a determining factor.
"If they come out here and show people the stuff we're hearing about, they're going to put a lot of pressure on you to make a decision."
At this point, Hultzen has thrown just three bullpen sessions and won't even face a live hitter until the full squad reports this weekend. If this were a marathon, he'd still be toeing the starting line after having done some warmup stretches. And Hultzen, two semesters shy of a history degree at Virginia, is smart enough to understand all of that.
"You want to show the best of your abilities," he said. "Whether that means you make the team or not, it doesn't matter. You're still out there to do your best. I'm not really concerned with trying to win a job the first week here. That's not what we're here to do. You just have to keep things in perspective."
Willis saw Hultzen pitch one game in the AFL and now has taken in his initial bullpen sessions in camp. His early thoughts?
"I'm very impressed with the fastball command," Willis said. "And he has some deception. He has a great feel for his changeup. His slider is coming. But one thing I see that I really like, he's an intelligent kid, but for a guy who is having his first spring and his only professional experience is the AFL, he has the confidence in himself."
The other notable thing is Hultzen's slightly unusual delivery -- he dips his knees just before winding up, then throws out of a three-quarter arm slot.
"He's comfortable with his delivery," Willis said. "Some people might say it's unorthodox, and yeah, it's a little different. But it's still his delivery and it's efficient. He's not concerned with looking like everybody else or being anybody else. He's trying to be the best Danny Hultzen he can be and I think that's a step forward right there.
"That's what we're hoping to get out of other young kids. 'We're going to make some adjustments if we need to that will allow you to improve, but don't change what you did that got you here.'"
Catcher John Jaso, who spent the last four years with Tampa Bay, noted the same mature approach after catching Hultzen for the first time.
"He has a funky arm slot, but he has a live arm and really good control over his body," Jaso said. "If he's off his mark, I think he has to do just one little thing like keep his shoulder closed and it'll bring him right back to centering. After the bullpen session with him, I asked him about it and he said that and he was right on. He doesn't have much polishing up to do to be a big league pitcher."
It helps that Hultzen has three years of college ball under his belt, having gone 32-5 with a 2.08 ERA in 51 games with Virginia while establishing himself as the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year.
However, none of that quite prepares a young man for walking into a clubhouse for the first time and seeing Felix Hernandez sitting nearby, preparing to put on the same uniform and head out to do the same work on the same practice field.
"It's still a little surreal," said Hultzen, "especially when you look over in that corner of the room and see guys that you've been watching on TV in past years. The fact you're in a locker room doing the same routine as them is just really cool."
But Hultzen already has learned not to get caught up in his surroundings. He'll be pitching more often than in college with a stricter throwing program, building up for a longer season. He'll soon be matching wits with established Major Leaguers and staring down some of baseball's best hitters.
Yet the game is the same one he's been playing since his days growing up in Maryland and pitching for St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.
"It's still baseball," he said. "That's the biggest thing you've got to keep reminding yourself. That doesn't change."