Danny Hultzen was a distant memory when the Rainiers finally wrapped up their 2-1, 18 inning, five-and-a-half hour victory over Sacramento last night. But the performance that he turned in during the first one-third of the game continued an encouraging trend in his outings with the Tacoma Rainiers as it was his best as a Triple-A hurler. The 22-year-old left-hander went six innings, allowing just three hits and two walks while striking out eight River Cats. The lone run he allowed was on a solo home run to Sacramento center fielder Jermaine Mitchell, a left-handed hitter, but one that handles left-handed pitching much better than right-handed pitching this season (.771 OPS to .681).
Hultzen threw 95 pitches over his six innings of work and I had him with nine swinging strikes, four or five of those coming on the fewer than 15 breaking balls that he threw. As has been his M.O. this season, Hultzen worked primarily with the fastball, throwing it probably 75% of the time. He does a great job of changing the batter's eye-level with the pitch and he really had Sacramento's Kila Ka'aihue – a hitter with a lot of big league experience – guessing in a critical at bat with the bases loaded by changing plane with his fastball to set up the breaking ball. That breaking ball – which Hultzen calls a slider but that has the characteristics, both in amount of movement and velocity, of a hard curve – is a better pitch than most, including Hultzen himself, realize. I believe that pitch will be the key to him keeping hitters off-balance at the big league level like he had Ka'aihue off-balance in that bases loaded at bat.
Hultzen is a very smart pitcher, one that picks up on trends and tendencies very well it seems. The outing last night was his fifth in Triple-A, and it is clear looking at the results of those starts that Hultzen is figuring some things out with Triple-A hitters. One of the most telling stat trends comes in his strikeout-to-walk ratio progression in those starts. He has been better in each start in that department, with the walks going from five (in 3 innings), to four (in 4 IP), to three twice (both in 5 IP), to just two last night while the strikeouts have gone in the opposite direction, with three in his first outing, six in each of the next two, seven in his start on the 13th and eight last night.
That's not to say that Hultzen is a completely refined product at this point. He is still struggling with his fastball command at times and he is throwing just about 59% of his pitches for strikes and was at 57.9% (55 of 95) last night. He was around 64% in Double-A Jackson when he was going well and the MLB average for starting pitchers is typically between 62% and 64%. Another interesting stat of note is that left-handers have hit Danny to the tune of .360/.484/.520 in 31 plate appearances in Tacoma after hitting just .094/.237/.125 in 78 plate appearances against him in Jackson. Still though, he is holding opposing batters to a .183 average covering his entire minor league time this season, a number that ranks 5th in all of full-season minor league baseball.
Prior to the season I was estimating that Hultzen would get, assuming good results, between 16 and 20 minor league starts before being promoted to the majors. He now has 18 starts combined between Jackson and Tacoma. He leads the Mariners' system and ranks 16th in the minors in strikeouts with 109 (in 98 1/3 IP), leads the organization in wins with nine, in starter's ERA at 1.74 (3rd in MiLB) and ranks 2nd in WHIP at 1.14. He is allowing just 5.77 hits-per-9 and, despite the hiccup in his first start (both in Double-A and Triple-A), he has allowed one earned run or less in all but three of his games as a pro thus far.
Danny Hultzen is ready right now to pitch for the Seattle Mariners. If I had to guess on Hultzen's and the Mariners' actual timetable, I would say that Danny will get probably one or two more starts for the Rainiers before he gets the call to Seattle -- which would conveniently fall right in line with the MLB non-waiver trade deadline. But he is ready now.
And he is going to be a very good big league pitcher.