Relaxing in a chair after practice, Danny Hultzen wore a slight smile. The University of Virginia star pitcher no longer had to worry about rolling out of bed in time for early-morning classes. He did not have to cram for any exams. There were no assignments coming due.
“It’s awesome,” Hultzen said on a recent weekday afternoon a few days after semester exams had finished. “All that stress of schoolwork and staying up to study for tests and writing is gone. It’s nice that you can really set your mind to playing baseball.”
Of course, some might expect that playing the game he loves is a more stressful exercise for Hultzen than excelling in the classroom, where the former St. Albans standout was named an academic all-American this spring.
Every time Hultzen took the mound this season — which the 6-foot-3 left-handed junior will do again this weekend as the Cavaliers host an NCAA tournament regional that begins Friday with a game against Navy — professional scouts and front-office executives have followed his every move. Some take out video cameras while he warms up in the bullpen, others hurriedly write in their notebooks.
These men have followed Hultzen since his senior year of high school, when he seemingly came out of nowhere to become a top prospect for the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. Over the years, Hultzen has grown to expect the groupie-like following when it is his turn to pitch.
In recent weeks, things have gotten especially intense. With Hultzen’s stock rising leading up to the three-day draft that begins Monday evening, high-level team executives have made their way to see Hultzen pitch, including Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington, whose team holds the first pick.
“I’ve gotten used to [the scouts], they get to the game when we do,” Hultzen said. “They have that look. They all have their briefcases filled with papers and radar guns, wearing the collared shirt with team name on the chest. They do have a distinctive look to them and they group together.”
Indeed, the scouts often like to swap stories or exchange insight into players they have recently seen. With Hultzen, there is no mystery about his talent. He is considered a polished pitcher with good velocity (a fastball in the low- to mid-90s) and above-average stuff (meaning his off-speed pitches have good movement).
Regardless of how much digging into the past a scout does, the reports on Hultzen are similar. He carries himself well and is humble off the field. Hultzen retains an aw-shucks personality. Ask about his cooking skills and how he might manage life in the minor leagues without a school cafeteria or meal plan and Hultzen jokes that he “can use the microwave pretty well” and that a roommate is teaching him how to light a charcoal grill.
“That’s what separates him from a lot of people,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said. “There is no selfishness.”
The only question about Hultzen is whether he will sign with the team that drafts him this year.
Coming out of high school, Hultzen and his family were considered standoffish by some scouts as they told major league clubs that he was not interested in pursuing a professional career at the time. While he fell in the draft because he said he did not plan to sign a contract, the Arizona Diamondbacks still selected Hultzen in the 10th round.
“When he was drafted, [Diamondbacks General Manager] Josh Byrnes called and said, ‘Congratulations, the contract is in the mail,’ ” said Hultzen’s father, Chris. “And I said I didn’t understand why he got drafted because we never showed any interest and said anything other than Daniel was going to college.”
By going to Virginia, Hultzen was not eligible for the draft again until this year. If he does not sign a contract with the team that drafts him by a mid-August deadline, he would go back into the draft next year.
At Virginia, Hultzen has been nothing short of spectacular, earning ACC freshman of the year honors and then being named the ACC pitcher of the year the past two seasons. He already has set schools records for victories (30) and strikeouts (356).
This season Hultzen is 10-3 with a 1.59 ERA. He also is batting .305 with 29 RBI as a part-time designated hitter when he is not pitching, leading O’Connor to remark that he believes Hultzen would be drafted in the top 10 rounds if he were a position player.
Typically, scouts from the major leagues’ 30 teams meet with Virginia’s draft-eligible players in December to gauge their interest in turning professional and then again in the spring. Hultzen, though, declined to meet with the clubs over the winter, saying he “didn’t want the pro ball stuff to be a distraction to my goals.”
This spring, as he has gone from a likely first-rounder to a near-certain top-five pick, Hultzen has visited only with officials from the top six teams picking in the draft (the Washington Nationals pick sixth) and the scouting bureau that sends information to every club. One of the ground rules for the meetings was that Hultzen would not discuss contract terms.
“It’s pretty incredible that they drive down from hours away just to sit down for an hour,” Hultzen said.
This week, Hultzen communicated to those clubs the terms under which he would sign.
“The traditional approach probably is you play cat and mouse and you bob and weave and you do all sorts of things, but we haven’t done that,” Chris Hultzen said. “I think we have saved a lot of people a lot of time.”
While Danny Hultzen has been noncommittal about the draft and turning pro, one scout who has seen Hultzen multiple times believes such talk is nothing more than posturing for a better contract.
“There is always a concern that you meet at a middle point” during contract negotiations, the scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly for his club. “But I would say there is no more concern with him than anyone else.”
If necessary, the final game of the regional tournament is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, an hour before the draft begins. Hultzen is scheduled to pitch on Saturday, meaning he could be in the dugout when his name is called.
“Obviously, it’s always been a dream of mine to play pro ball and make the major leagues, but there are other things in front of me, and that’s this team,” Hultzen said, following an approach favored by O’Connor. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited about the opportunity to play pro ball, but there are other things in front of me right now.”