Alex Hinshaw was on top of the mountain, but lost his control and fell all the way down.
Now a 31-year-old lefthander pitching for the independent American Association's Wichita Wingnuts, Hinshaw spent parts of three seasons coming out of the bullpen in the big leagues, first with the Giants in 2008 and 2009, and then splitting time between the Padres and Cubs in 2012.
With a low-90s fastball that tops out at 94 mph, a devastating slider and a curveball that falls off the table, the Giants' 15th-round draft pick from 2005 has always had the arsenal to get batters out.
The issue has been in commanding it.
“That's always been an obstacle for me," Hinshaw said. “I've never really been a pinpoint control guy."
In his three full seasons as a minor league pitcher before making the big leagues, Hinshaw walked 97 batters in 133 innings. Because of what his current manager, Kevin Hooper, calls “electric stuff," he continued his climb through the system.
He appeared in 48 major league games for the Giants in 2008 and another nine in 2009—walking 36 in 46 innings—before playing in the Cubs, Padres and Blue Jays organizations. He got stints in the majors with the Cubs and Padres, but again, his inability to locate made those trips shorter than he would have liked. He cites a combination of physical and mental factors that led to his command issues.
“I think it was a perfect storm of both, to be honest with you," Hinshaw said. “A lot of it was physical to begin with, mechanical stuff. But that started taking a toll on me mentally.
“Growing up I was so competitive and I'd try to figure stuff out on my own because I'm so competitive, so stubborn. Then it started weighing on me mentally that I couldn't figure it out. I was listening to different voices, different suggestions, then it started spiraling out of control to the point where I was thinking about 85 different mechanical things that I needed to do before every pitch.
“It was so stressful and it started bringing my confidence down, where I was trying to guide the ball in there rather than throwing it with conviction and knowing I can get outs with the stuff that I already possess."
The fall from the top of the mountain was quick.
He made his last major league pitch on Aug. 27, 2012, as a member of the Cubs. The next year Hinshaw made 12 appearances for Blue Jays' Triple-A Buffalo club before being released. He spent the rest of the 2013 season bouncing around the independent Atlantic League, spending time in Somerset, Bridgeport and Long Island.
Then came an offseason of regrouping.
“I took this last offseason for myself, just to get my thoughts together. I always knew I've had the stuff it takes," Hinshaw said. “I basically just started over, and I think it helped out a lot."
At the latest stop in the journeyman's career, he has found success once more.
With Matt Nevarez entrenched in the role of Wingnuts closer, Hooper has used Hinshaw as a “moment of truth" reliever, sometimes in the seventh, sometimes in the eighth, wherever the game dictates.
Hinshaw has been virtually unhittable, but he has also been too free with the free passes. In 12 appearances this season, he had logged 13 innings with a 2.13 ERA. He has struck out 25, but continues to flirt with trouble with his command, walking 11.
“When he was having his troubles in the majors it was because of his command," Hooper said. “And he's not completely past that, he's walked some guys here, but like I was telling a scout the other day, when he's not in command he's not erratic, if that makes sense. He's not throwing balls to the backstop."
While, like all of his teammates, Hinshaw dreams of getting back to Organized Baseball (and eventually to the big leagues), a sense of reality allows Hinshaw to understand and appreciate the spot he's in.
“I haven't been around much in indy ball, but this is among the most fun things I've ever done, affiliated ball, big leagues or indy ball," he said. “It's just a great group of guys. It's really hard to have a bad day around this group of guys."
Hinshaw said he is making sure he makes the most of his time, sharing stories, experiences, thoughts and just about anything else with his teammates in general and his bullpen-mates in particular, all while keeping an open ear to anything they have to share with him. That comes naturally to him, though.
As Hooper reminds his players routinely, affiliated baseball is on a need-be basis. The phone could ring tomorrow, in a week or the call may never come; that's the nature of the business they are in.
“I'm realistic with what's going on," Hinshaw said. “I know it's my command issues that have had me end up here, but you know what, I'm still playing the game I love. I'm still playing what I grew up loving and wanting to do. This is all I've ever wanted to do in my life."
Hinshaw was on top of the mountain, but he lost his control and fell all the way down. He landed on two feet, though, and isn't complaining about the view.