PEORIA, Ariz. – Danny Hultzen is usually spoken of as the head of a three-armed beast, one of a trio of young Seattle Mariners pitchers that has become the hope of a franchise.
It goes like this: Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker.
“Being here with James and Taijuan helps me relate a little more in camp,” Hultzen said. “We’re all young, we’re all here for the first time – along with Erasmo (Ramirez) and Forrest (Snow).”
“We talk about everything: What movie you saw, how you spent your eight hours off, how you hold that pitch …”
None has thrown a major league pitch yet, and one week into spring training, each is feeling his way. Pitching coach Carl Willis gave them an early assignment in Arizona: Get comfortable.
Hultzen got it done.
“I’m more comfortable in camp than I thought I’d be. I’m naturally passive with people until I know them, but I’ve been real comfortable with everyone,” he said.
“I think the Arizona Fall League helped me make the transition. It showed me how the dynamic of a clubhouse worked. I’m learning how to act around veterans.”
Like Paxton, Walker, Ramirez and Snow, Hultzen feels the eyes upon him when he takes the bullpen mound, whether they belong to the general manager, manager, scouts or teammates.
“You want to show your best stuff. That goes through your mind. But it’s a process of getting ready to face hitters,” Hultzen said. “How you look in the bullpen isn’t the test.”
The second player picked in the 2011 draft, Hultzen is a 22-year-old left-hander who knows what he can do, what he is and isn’t.
“I pitch to contact. From the first pitch on, I’m thinking ‘hit it,’ because the quicker you get outs, the fewer pitches it takes, the longer you stay in games,” he said.
“That’s the kind of pitcher I am. I don’t have knee-buckling stuff, I don’t throw pitches that make people go ‘whoa!’ but I can make hitters hit my pitch.”
It was something he learned at the University of Virginia. The hard way.
“In high school, I got by with my fastball. My freshman year in college, I learned real quick that wasn’t going to work,” he said. “My pitching coach in college, Karl Kuhn, taught me how to pitch.”
Along with a fastball that reaches 91-92 mph, Hultzen throws a wicked change-up and a slider, though the latter is his newest pitch and still under construction.
“I was taught never to think of which was your second- or third-best pitch,” Hultzen said. “On the mound, you have to think of your pitches as A-1, A-2, A-3 – and have the confidence that each is that good.
“The fall of my freshman year was like a laboratory. I learned the change-up.”
How’d that work out for him? In three seasons pitching with Virginia, Hultzen’s record was 32-5 with a 2.08 earned run average in 50 starts. He set the school record with 395 strikeouts in 320 innings.
Seattle noticed and grabbed him with its first-round pick last June. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League, making six starts and going 1-0 with a 1.40 ERA, then came to camp.
“The first few (bullpen sessions), no one has said much to me. It’s too early for that,” Hultzen said. “I threw to John Jaso one time, and afterward he talked to me, gave me a little piece of information about a pitch.
“When we face live hitting for the first time, that’s going to be exciting. This time a year ago, I was in college. There will probably be that split-second out there when I look in to see who I’m facing, but after that it’ll be about making the pitches.”
Manager Eric Wedge is giving all the youngsters in camp as much time as he can to acclimate. His first impression?
“The ability is obvious, and you can see he has an idea what he wants to do out there,” Wedge said of Hultzen.
For now, it’s too early for serious evaluations. For now Hultzen, Paxton and Walker sit beside one another in the Seattle clubhouse, stand back-to-back-to-back during team stretching.
They are the future of the franchise, and no one with the club wants to rush them – but neither would it be a surprise for all three to make their major league debuts at some point in 2012.
Hultzen said they don’t talk about that. Much.
“It comes up,” he acknowledged. “Like I said, we talk about everything.”