By Shannon Drayer
One surprise that perhaps should not be a surprise is that we have not seen any of the "Big 3" at the major-league level this season. It seemed all but certain at least one would make it up by the end of the year but that has not happened, and I would be surprised at this point if it did. I don't think this necessarily means the shine of the stars of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Taijuan Walker have worn off in any way, rather I think it shows that expectations of a meteoric rise by any of the three may have not quite been realistic.
Walker is young, so it is no surprise to see him stay at Double-A this season. Paxton was hurt for a period of time, so that changes things. Danny Hultzen seemed to be the odds-on favorite this spring to make it to Seattle first, and that may still happen, just not this year.
I have talked to a number of people both inside and outside of the organization about Hultzen this week and from the sounds of things he is having a normal first professional season. He is going through the things that just about every pitcher not named Strasburg goes through in the first year.
Hultzen made quick work of Double-A as he compiled a 8-3 record with a 1.19 ERA and a .151 average against. All good. He had good strikeout numbers but his BB percentage was a bit high at 11. Nevertheless he was promoted to Triple-A and it is tough to argue with that decision as he was clearly dominating the competition. He was walking guys but they weren't scoring. This is something we saw in spring training. Guys would get on but then he would buckle down, almost find another gear and get out of any trouble he got into. It was impressive.
The problem is you can't live like that at the upper levels. Hultzen has always been a command guy but he hasn't had his typical command at triple A where his BB percentage is 16.3. Hitters are more selective at that level and he has yet to make the adjustment. So what has been going on?
He has been up and down since arriving at Tacoma. Two starts ago he threw five innings of no-hit, three-walk ball. On Friday he couldn't get out of the first inning. He walked four batters and was lifted after throwing two thirds of an inning. He has some impressive strikeout numbers but has gone six innings in only one game with the Rainiers.
Some of this has been by design. A decision was made in late July to give Hultzen a break, both physically and mentally. Originally they were just going to skip a bullpen but they skipped a couple of starts instead and brought him back on a lower pitch count.
This is the first time in a long time that Hultzen has struggled. Second pick in the draft, All-American, coming off the College World Series, Hultzen had everything figured out. It is a new ballgame for him now and as far as Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis is concerned, this is the right time to go through this.
"We are seeing a natural progression that happens to every player at some point in time and frankly I think it is better that it happens at some level in the minor leagues than here," he said.
"How you respond to struggles, your reaction, the adjustments you make, how to make those adjustments, the only way you can do that is to experience it. With the ability he has, the intelligence he has, going forward he is going to be a better pitcher for it."
The first year in professional ball is a big one as far as adjustments go. I remember talking to Dustin Ackley shortly after he got to Tacoma and he pointed to the schedule and the travel as being some of the biggest challenges for him coming off a college season. He said the intensity level was completely different without having the distraction of school. The stakes are much higher and adjusting to that can be a challenge.
I told Willis about the conversation with Ackley and he said that was a great comparison.
"He had a very similar path," said Willis. "First professional experience in fall league, starts out in Double-A, the exact same thing with a lot of expectations."
On the hill, small adjustments are being made. I had heard that Hultzen was working to move to the other side of the pitching rubber and Willis explained this.
"We are not talking one side to the other," he said. "We talk a lot about creating a lot of angle. It is a gradual progression until you find out where that perfect spot is so you can create those angles to both sides of the plate. I don't think it is a major adjustment and we want to try to make it the smallest adjustment we can to get the best results for him."
Hultzen will continue to make those adjustments in the final 10 days of the season. Willis said that he will make the remainder of his scheduled starts and that he hopes he finishes on a positive note so he can have a bit of peace of mind. A decision about what he will do this offseason has not been made yet but I would imagine that unless they want him to make some sort of major mechanical change, and there is no indication of that, he will not be pitching this fall or winter.
One thing can be guaranteed: the Mariners will not rush him. It is almost a relief to see the struggle. As Willis said all pitchers go through it and best that he experience it first away from the big stage. We will see Hultzen when he is ready.
News and notes
• Although there was curious handling of the game by the umpires, leaving the Mariners on the field in an absolute monsoon in the seventh inning, no one would use that as an excuse for the 4-3 loss.
"They're just working off the information they are getting," said Eric Wedge. "You can make an argument either way in regard to what is going on. Nobody can predict the weather, but they are getting the best information they can from the people who are supposed to know but the information wasn't very good today so it worked against us. We have still got to play baseball."
Wedge was not discouraged by the three-game sweep at the hands of the Sox, saying that they could have won all three games and that he likes the fight he is seeing with his team.
As for Kevin Millwood, who gave up the game-winning home run after the 6-minute rain delay where the Mariners were kept on the field, he said the whole event was just "weird."
"I thought he said they were going to put the tarp on and then they just put the Diamond Dry on. Either way, it didn't affect what happened," he said.
• Michael Saunders was held out for another day after suffering a slight groin injury in his collision with Eric Thames Friday night. He expects to be well enough to play Monday in Minnesota.
• It sounds like Franklin Gutierrez is close to a return, very close. I wouldn't be surprised if we see him before the team returns to Seattle.