CHARLOTTESVILLE — Danny Hultzen starts close in and works his way out. These days he tosses the ball up to 120 feet. Toward the end of some sessions, throws can feel 10 times that far. Now he knows that’s when to slow down.
The construction of new-look Davenport Field, expected to be ready for Opening Day next season, goes on around him. Shortly after Hultzen first left the University of Virginia, he committed $100,000 to the upgrades.
That was in 2011, when the Seattle Mariners selected the Bethesda native second overall in the MLB draft and offered him a contract worth $8.5 million.
More than the fishing gear, golf clubs or pickup truck, the biggest check that the St. Albans graduate wrote helped fund the machinery and hard hats that now surround his morning workouts.
Still, that payday’s largest impact has been psychological.
“Insecurities crept into my head. Like, ‘I don’t know if I’m that good. I have to go out there and throw the ball harder and be perfect all the time,’ ” Hultzen said. “I thought I had to be the guy that was worth that pick and worth that investment. I put an unhealthy amount of pressure on myself.”
That pressure is gone after 189 professional innings and two surgeries on his throwing shoulder, in October 2013 and July 2016. He is unsigned to a team, and nobody is expecting anything out of his left arm anymore. But with lessons learned from becoming a cautionary tale for pitching through pain, Hultzen is patiently working to be ready for baseball by spring 2018.
“I know the odds are not in my favor, or remotely in my favor,” Hultzen said. “Also I know if I didn’t try to play again, I would have thought ‘what would have happened? What would have been?’ That would have been hard to live with. That was the regret that I didn’t want to deal with.”
Based on draft status alone, the chances were good that Hultzen would realize his dream of pitching for a major league team. From 2008-12, 20 pitchers signed professional contracts after being selected in the top 10 of the MLB draft, and 17 have pitched in a major league game. The three that have not — Hultzen, Baltimore Orioles’ 2009 fifth overall pick Matt Hobgood, and Kansas City Royals 2012 fifth overall pick Kyle Zimmer — have all had shoulder surgeries.
At U-Va., Hultzen became Virginia’s top starter less than a month into his first season, after accepting his first and only scholarship offer. He led the Cavaliers to the 2009 and 2011 College World Series and is the program’s all-time leader in strikeouts (395) and wins (32).
Away from the structure of his college program, he lost track.
“What I was used to at U-Va. was ‘you do this our way or you're not going to play. We tell you what to do, you go out and do it,’ ” Hultzen said. “And then in pro ball, it’s your career. It’s your arm. ‘If you need help, ask us, but we’re never going to tell you to do anything, because it's your career.’ ”
Hultzen struck out 79 batters and had a a 1.19 ERA in his first 75.1 professional innings with the Class AA Jackson (Tenn.) Generals. In June 2012, about a year after he was drafted, he made his first AAA start for the Tacoma (Wash.) Rainiers. In three innings, he surrendered five walks and five earned runs.
This is when the competitive drive responsible for turning a skinny kid into the best pitcher in Virginia history and a multimillionaire started to turn on him.
He posted a 5.92 ERA in 48.2 innings as a rookie in Class AAA. His response to those struggles was to work out harder between starts. With fatigue, his mechanics deteriorated. His arm angle slipped lower. After he raised his right thigh in his left-handed motion, he began planting his right foot closer to first base, putting additional pressure on his arm with each pitch.
His shoulder hurt. His arm hurt. His pride and confidence followed. After starts, he couldn’t openly admit that he was struggling.
“I held it all in, which made it all worse,” Hultzen said. “I didn't tell anyone about my arm hurting because I didn’t want to be the guy that got picked where I did and screwed up and got hurt. That was just a dark, dark place for me for a while. That’s probably my only regret in my baseball career, is not being more honest about myself and how I was feeling. I was very, very closed off.”
In 2011 with Virginia, Hultzen made 18 starts in 127 days. In 2012 in AA and AAA, he made 25 starts in 149 days. In 2013, he made six more starts before having surgery on his rotator cuff, shoulder capsule and labrum.
Pitching is such a violent delivery. It’s not a natural thing to do 80 times in a game,” said Bashir Zikria, an orthopedic surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins. “You only have a certain number of reps in that shoulder before you start tearing it apart. Even with 13-year-old kids, everyone can be amazed at how hard they’re throwing and how they’re striking everyone out, but nobody looks at his delivery and what it might be doing to his body.”
As he recovered from his first surgery, Hultzen worked to straighten out his delivery. But by the end of his second professional season, his right plant foot was landing nearly two feet toward first base.
“It’s one of those things that he had so much success, everybody was just like ‘well, he throws that way’,” said Terry Clark, a pitching coordinator with the Mariners during Hultzen’s tenure. “Everybody knew it was kind of risky the way he threw, but when a guy is picked that high and is that good, there is that concern that if we straighten him out too much, he wouldn’t be as good anymore.”
The first surgery wasn’t a wake-up call. Hultzen says now he rushed himself back, and he ended up pitching just 10 more professional innings. In spring training 2016, he couldn’t lift his cellphone after a throwing session. Just before a second surgery on his rotator cuff, shoulder capsule and labrum, a Mariners team doctor called to tell him that he did not suggest pitching again.
Now, with the knowledge that he has long odds and the peace of mind to take it easy, Hultzen is back in his comfort zone in Charlottesville, making an honest effort to play baseball again.
“The days when it doesn’t feel great, those are the days that I’ve learned to slow down and be honest,” Hultzen said. “This time through, it’s okay to give it two days rest. That thinking will help me tenfold this time.”