Danny Hultzen has been a bona fide ace since the day he set foot on Virginia’s campus. He threw six shutout innings in his first career start and never looked back, entrenching himself in the weekend rotation for good. Over his first two college seasons, Hultzen went 20-2, 2.50 with 230 strikeouts and 52 walks in 202 innings.
It’s almost hard to believe Hultzen could get even better as a junior, but he has. Through seven starts, the lefthander is 6-0, 1.36 with 78 strikeouts and nine walks in 46 innings. On top of that, he contributed significantly to UVa.’s offense over the first five weeks, hitting .316/.414/.421 with 19 RBIs. If you want to know why second-ranked Virginia leads the nation with 29 wins and a .935 winning percentage, Hultzen is a great place to start. There has not been a more valuable player in college baseball thus far in 2011, which is why Hultzen is Baseball America’s Midseason Player of the Year.
“He’s been fantastic—those numbers are unheard of,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said in March. “I don’t know if they’re going to continue, but I’d like to think that they are. He’s just matured. Not that he wasn’t mature as a freshman—I mean, jeez, the guy started two games in Omaha as a freshman. It’s hard to be better than last year, when he was the ACC pitcher of the year, but he’s a better pitcher now. He’s stronger physically, he holds his velocity until late in the game, his command of his fastball is better, his offspeed pitches are sharper and more consistent. He just looks like a very, very determined guy who’s going to do his job every time out there.”
As a freshman, Hultzen’s two-way role took a toll on him, and he ran out of gas a bit at the end of the year, as O’Connor put it. The Cavs were deep enough offensively in 2010 that they could afford to lighten his offensive responsibilities, which helped him dominate on the mound all the way through his final start of the season, when he struck out nine and allowed just two runs over eight innings in a super regional win against Oklahoma.
But Hultzen is even stronger now, and O’Connor said he’s maintaining his fastball velocity deeper into outings. He touches 94 mph routinely and pitches comfortably in the low 90s. He has not been in the lineup as a first baseman or DH over the past two weeks, as O’Connor said that he’s trying to get some younger players experience but that Hultzen will be back in the mix as the season progresses. Hultzen is a good line-drive hitter who grinds out at-bats, and O’Connor said he is a “way better hitter” than he was as a freshman, thanks largely to his added strength.
“I came in here as a freshman really skinny, maybe even a frail little kid,” Hultzen said. “I’ve tried to work hard these past couple of summers, trying to put on some weight, eating right, that kind of stuff. I’ve stayed at school over the summer—I took some classes after my freshman year and lifted weights and stuff. Last summer I just lifted weights. I’ve put on maybe 25 or 30 pounds since I cam in here.”
Scouts have certainly taken notice. Hultzen was a known commodity coming out of St. Albans High in Washington, D.C., and he ranked as the No. 79 prospect for the 2008 draft. The son of a neonatologist (a doctor who treats premature babies) and a psychiatrist, Hultzen placed a high value on academics, and his firm commitment to UVa. caused him to slip to the 10th round of the draft.
Now he’s garnering buzz as a potential top-five overall pick.
“He’s gotten better. His three years in college have done him well,” a National League scouting director said. “He’s grown into his body, he’s cleaned up his arm action and delivery. The stuff has gotten better, and he’s throwing it where he wants to. It’s plus stuff, with command and deception. The changeup is a plus pitch, and the slider too, at times.”
O’Connor said Hultzen’s offspeed pitches are sharper and more consistent than they used to be. Hultzen said there are days he relies more on the slider, and days he leans more on the changeup. He throws the changeup mostly to righthanded hitters and the slider mostly to lefties.
“I think I’ve worked on having better command of every pitch,” Hultzen said. “That was the big switch from high school to college: throwing more than one pitch for strikes, and just realizing you can’t throw just fastballs anymore, you have to locate all your pitches.”
His accuracy has been pinpoint in 2011, as illustrated by his 8.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. No matter whom Virginia plays—Hultzen has been a part of victories against East Carolina, Clemson and Florida State this year—he simply carves up opposing lineups. He knows what he has to do, and he does it. No wonder the scouting director referred to him as “quiet, but diligent and hard-working.”
“He’s not flashy, not a pump-his-fist kind of guy,” O’Connor said, “but he’s been pitching as well as a college pitcher can pitch.”