If Trevor Bauer hasn't been the best pitcher in college this season, Danny Hultzen has. Virginia's ace southpaw has struck out 38.4% of batters while walking just 4.4%. Hultzen's 2011 numbers stack up with the best pitching seasons in recent memory.
Increased velocity has been at the center of Hultzen's rise up draft boards. Though he performed at very high levels as an underclassman, Hultzen only featured a high-80s fastball prior to 2011. Early this spring, he saw a marked increase in velocity, stepping up to the mid-90s. However, in his past few starts Hultzen has been back in the low-90's. Going forward, I see him working 90-92 MPH with sink and command. Even if his velocity is just average, Hultzen's fastball plays up a bit do to movement and command. It should be an above-average offering.
Hultzen's slider can flatten out at times, but it has shown above-average break. Some of the movement comes naturally from his low arm slot but the slider should be an effective weapon against at least lefthanded hitters. Hultzen has flirted with a slow curveball in the past but the pitch doesn't seem to have much of a future. The benefit his low arm slot gives to a slider, it takes away from a curve.
Hultzen's best pitch is certainly his changeup. Rare for a pitcher his age, Hultzen's changeup might get a plus current grade, not just future. He throws it at 78-82 MPH, giving the pitch solid speed differential between his change and fastball. Hulten gets excellent sinking action on his changeup, almost splitter-like at times. The pitch is good enough to get big leaguers out right now, and could develop into one of the game's best.
If you looked up the term "pitcher's build" in a dictionary you wouldn't find anything. But, when the Oxford English Dictionary gets around to adding baseball cliches, Danny Hultzen would make a worthy pictoral representation. Standing every bit of 6-foot-3 and a solid 200 pounds, Hultzen has a well developed lower half with especially strong thighs. Already strong and athletic, Hultzen's frame is still projectable. He figures, in the future, to be built like a workhorse.
Hultzen's overall motion is unique, to say the least.
He begins his motion in sort of a squat position, knees bent. He then takes a relatively short, controlled stride towards home, landing a bit towards first base. This plant position forces Hultzen to throw across his body. Unlike some pitchers who throw across their body, Hultzen does not have a problem getting up over his front leg as he finishes his delivery. However just about every pitcher who does this costs themselves some hip rotation. Hip rotation equals velocity. Hultzen's lack of optimal hip rotation is, in my opinion, a major contributing cause for his velocity being just average for most of his career. It's also a major reason why I doubt he maintains, long term, the velocity spike he showed for parts of the spring.
Hultzen's arm action is a bit unconventional. He separates his hands at chest level and takes the ball all the way down to his back hip before he begins the pick-up phase of his delivery. This added length results in a significant timing issue for Hultzen at footplant. The ball is almost exactly at shoulder level at this key point in the delivery. At times, his pitching elbow can get high, resulting in small amounts of hyperabduction and a very minimal "Inverted W". This position, in and of itself, isn't very dangerous but the timing problems almost always associated with it are.
Hultzen comes from a very low arm angle, nearly a true side-armer slot. Some pitchers with similar arm slots can avoid the dangers of such timing issues if the ball is shoulder height at footplant -- that may be right in their natural drive line. However Hultzen takes the ball from shoulder height back up to a normal high cocked or "T" position. The ball then goes back down into his shoulder level driveline where it is finally accelerated towards home. Hultzen's pitching forearm turns nearly 180 degrees in a very short period of time from footplant to high cocked to maximum external rotation. This rapid forearm swing causes Hultzen to supinate into his release and even into his follow through. Some of the added pressure Hultzen places on his arm could be minimized by pronation, however he does not pronate well, if at all.
Overall I have pretty serious worries about the arm action. There's unnecessary length, poor timing, and the ball isn't in the driveline for very long. Those things aren't good for performance, but they're really not good for the arm either. Hultzen's arm action and timing result in added stress on the elbow.
Hultzen's unusual arm action does, however, result in him hiding the ball very well. One of the difficulties in scouting Hultzen was that he hid the ball so well it was virtually impossible to determine his full arm path from the batter's point of view. Even though his velocity may be only average, his deceptiveness makes it play up. Hultzen is a hard pitcher to time, as a hitter. His pitches really sneak up on you.
He does maintain very good balance throughout his delivery and throws with something less than maximum effort. He's a good athlete. Even though his motion is a bit unorthodox, Hultzen does appear to be smooth and controlled. You can have red flags in your mechanics and still have smoothness in your motion, Hultzen is a terrific example of this seeming dichotomy.
He does land in a terrific fielding position, and should be an asset defensively in the big leagues. However, Hultzen seems to cut his follow through short at times. His follow through straddles the line between recoil and a pitcher actively applying the breaks to his arm. Given that the motion tends to be more horizontal than vertical and it looks as if his pitching arm doesn't fully reach his torso at times, I'm inclined to say it's more that Hultzen is tapping on the breaks. Deciphering what's actually happening in a pitcher's follow through is the single most difficult part of scouting pitching mechanics from afar. You really can't tell what muscles are doing the work.
It's a tough position for any pitcher, getting the right feel for the amount you should slow your arm down versus letting the energy disperse gradually. It's like speeding up to a stop sign in a car, you don't want to rush through the intersection but you also don't want stop short and smash your head on the dashboard.
Danny Hultzen is one of the most polished college pitchers to come out in years. He attacks hitters. He throws every pitch with a purpose. There's a little Mike Leake in there, in the good way.
Hultzen should need very little time in the minors. Really, I think any time he spends there is a wasted. He's good enough right now to battle in the big leagues. Hultzen's best trait as a prospect is that he has such a high floor. He could easily be the first pitcher from the 2011 MLB draft to pitch in the big leauges. If he signs quickly, a September callup isn't out of the question.
There's a lot to like about Hultzen's prospects. He has a quality, three-pitch mix, advanced command, deception, the ability to pitch with poise and intelligence, and an outstanding track record of collegiate success.
The only thing holding Hultzen back as a prospect in my eyes are mechanical inefficiencies, which cost him stuff and put him at an elevated risk level of future injury. If he can't hold the velocity spike he showed early this year -- as of the writing of this report he's given some of that velocity back -- his stuff puts him closer to a No. 3 starter than a No. 2.
In a perfect world Hultzen is a strong No. 2 and occasional All-Star. In an imperfect one, he's an injury plagued mid-rotation starter.
His transcendent college season has vaulted him from a mid-first round prospect to a likely Top 5 selection. The short-term value is excellent, even for a pick that high, but the odds are against him staying healthy long-term.