It's funny the way people refer to some draft picks as being "safe", as if any baseball draft pick ever is safe. Some draft picks are more safe than other draft picks, sure, but no draft pick is a guarantee, or anything close. Josh Fields was supposed to be a safe pick. Dustin Ackley was supposed to be a safe pick. Danny Hultzen was supposed to be a safe pick. Ackley and Hultzen might well turn things around and flourish for two decades, but "safe" and "polished" might be dirty words.
We all remember what Danny Hultzen did with double-A Jackson earlier this season. Hultzen began his affiliated career at an advanced level and pantsed it, leaving the rest of double-A to shuffle around embarrassed in its underoos. The Southern League was just no match for Danny Hultzen and he shot up midseason prospect lists in response. Mariners fans started asking when Hultzen might arrive, and the Mariners, in turn, bumped Hultzen up to triple-A Tacoma.
Hultzen went three innings in his first start, walking five. Hultzen went two-thirds of an inning in his last start, walking four. In between, things were better, but things were not good. And we can't just throw away the bookends, either.
Hultzen made ten appearances with the Rainiers, totaling 42 innings. In the Pacific Coast League this year, 194 pitchers have thrown at least 40 innings. Among them, Hultzen's strike rate of just under 58 percent ranks tied for fifth-worst. Among them, Hultzen's walk rate of just over 16 percent ranks second-worst. As a Mariner in 2009, Ian Snell walked more than 13 percent of the batters he faced. Hultzen's walk rate is a lot worse than that, in the minors.
It's not that the skill wasn't evident. Hultzen obviously brought his repertoire, the repertoire that made him such a high draft pick, and he allowed a contact rate of just over 74 percent. Put another way, more than one of every four swings against Hultzen in triple-A whiffed. That is among the league's better rates. Accordingly, Hultzen ranked near the top in strikeouts. At no point all year has Danny Hultzen been easy to hit, and being difficult to hit might be the best thing for a pitching prospect to be.
But Hultzen was wild. Observably, regularly, unexpectedly wild. This isn't something that we can just dismiss. Danny Hultzen was supposed to be a safe, polished strike-thrower, and against the most advanced competition he's seen, he didn't throw strikes. That's worrisome, and more worrisome than it seems it's getting credit for.
As biased fans, we tend to downplay under-performance and celebrate over-performance. The way we do it is subtle and it sounds perfectly reasonable, so we don't stop ourselves from doing it. It's really easy to say that Hultzen was just adjusting to a new level, and at the end of his first professional year. Ackley struggled early on at new levels in the minors before turning it up. It's really easy to say that Hultzen just needs to make a few simple adjustments and going forward he'll be fine.
But every underachieving player is just a few adjustments away from no longer being an underachieving player, and most underachieving players continue to underachieve. Adjustments aren't that simple. Sometimes they don't take, and sometimes they do other harm. What you want from a player is for him to be successful. When a young player isn't successful, it doesn't mean he'll never be successful, but you can't just take for granted that he'll turn things around because he was highly touted coming out of high school or college.
Danny Hultzen is very young and in triple-A he missed a lot of bats, even when he didn't have a shred of his command. That's the encouraging takeaway. The discouraging takeaway is the rest, and Hultzen needs work. More work than a lot of people thought he needed while he was pointing and laughing at double-A's tiny wiener. And it's not just that Hultzen's numbers were troubling; he's a pitching prospect, and hopefully I don't need to go into detail on the perils of trusting pitching prospects.
I love the Cerberus nickname for the Mariners' top pitching prospects. It is among the league's better crop of organizational pitching prospects, and all three of Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker could have long and awesome careers. They could begin as early as 2013. But Hultzen just walked the world in triple-A. Paxton was throwing too many balls in double-A. Walker owns a double-A ERA over 4, and he got more and more hittable as the season wore on. There's a lot of talent in Cerberus. There's a lot of risk, and not a thing guaranteed.
We thought the Mariners would score big and easily with Dustin Ackley, and while they still might, they haven't yet. Don't make the same mental mistake with guys who aren't even in the majors yet, and guys who aren't position players. Don't take players for granted, and don't take loved ones for granted. In fact, call up a loved one right now and express your appreciation. You think I'm just yanking your chain but seriously do it or I'll ban you.