Virginia enters the College World Series as the #1 overall seed and the favorite. Cal enters as the lowest ranked team in the field and the underdog. Virginia is led by their ace starting pitcher Danny Hultzen, who was selected 2nd overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. The Bears will likely see him in their opening game as Virginia looks to get off to a good start. What can the team expect to see from the Virginia pitcher?
The lefthander attended St. Alban’s high school, in Maryland. He went 13-0 with a .74 ERA as a senior, while hitting 6 home runs. Amazingly, that was a regression from his junior year, when he had a .35 ERA. He was named an All-American by Baseball America and Louisville Slugger, and was drafted in the 10th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He didn’t sign, and went to Virginia. His freshman year had him going 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA. He took a starting role from the moment he stepped on campus. His sophomore year was much of the same, with an 11-1 record and a 2.78 ERA. His ERA took a hit, but his innings increased, he gave up less hits, had more strikeouts, and he walked less. Luck was the only thing between him and his “lack” of improvement. This season, he’s gone from great to dominating. His record this year is 12-3, and his ERA is 1.49. All of his other numbers have improved as well. It may have some to do with the new bats, but it also has to do with the fact that he has good stuff and great command. We’ve profiled Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole already; Hultzen measures up with them evenly as a college pitcher.
Hultzen doesn’t hit the upper 90s like most top prospects, nor does he have a dominating breaking ball. Instead he gets by with a solid 3 pitch mix that can flash a fourth pitch at times. We’ll start with his fastball, which tops at about 94 and sits between 88-92. Early on in the game, he uses it early and often, establishing the fastball and then working from there to get his breaking pitches down. Against right handed batters, he uses it as his out pitch, getting hitters to reach up and swing at the high cheese. If he was righty, his fastball would be good; considering he’s a lefty, it’s very good. His change-up is his secondary pitch. It sits between 78-82, with solid downward movement. The movement is nothing special, but what makes it an effective pitch is his command of it and the difference in velocity from his fastball. Having the ability to drop up to 16 mph from fastball to change keeps hitters off balance and throws off their timing. Hultzen’s command of the pitch is also nearly perfect. He throws it exclusively to the outside corner, and hits it frequently. If he misses, it’s way outside; he never lets the pitch catch a lot of plate where it can be driven. Hultzen also features a pair of more traditional breaking pitches, a slider and a curveball. The slider is the pitches he favors more. It’s not really an impressive pitch; it sits at about 82, and it doesn’t have devastating movement or the big “sweep” you typically see with a slider. It’s good enough to do the job against left handers, breaking away from them on the outside. However, in the start I watched against UC Irvine he was never comfortable enough to throw it against a righty. It’s much like his change-up; he doesn’t leave it on the plate, and it’s got enough movement to fool hitters. His curveball is a pitch I saw once, against a lefty, and it looked like a devastating pitch. It looked almost like a slurve, breaking down and away from the left hander and leaving him hopeless. I’d be very aware of it if I’m a lefty going against him. His repertoire looks like nothing special on an individual basis, but when you have a lefty with some 90s heat with a fastball and 3 breaking pitches he use effectively, you’re looking at a good package.
If I’m Dave Esquer, I’m stacking the lineup with as many as right handed hitters as I possibly can. We’re lucky in that our top bats like Chadd Krist, Tony Renda, and Marcus Semien are right handed. But in any situation where there’s been a time share, put in the right handed hitter. Turn Hultzen into a two pitch pitcher, and don’t let him get comfortable with his breaking pitches against a lefty. As an offensive whole, I take the first two to three innings very seriously. Hultzen had problems settling down in the early innings against UC Irvine, and it cost the Eaters because they didn’t get anything out of it. That means none of the outs on the bases we’ve seen all year, jumping on the fastball early when you know it’s coming, and not getting yourself out by taking bad hacks. If you want to know what the fate of the Bears offense will be against the #2 pick, watch the first few innings. Overall, it’s an absolute need for the hitters to go with the pitches and take them the other way. He lives on the outside corners, and if you try to pull it you’re just giving him outs. Getting baserunners and runs early and taking a good approach with the outside pitches will be the keys for Cal.
Hultzen is a great pitcher, and he’s a big reason why Virginia is #1 and in the College World Series. That doesn’t mean that Cal’s going to need to win a 1-0 game to take him down. With the right approach, and some bounces going their way, the Bears could easily turn it into a game where they have 4-5 runs and Virginia has to use their bullpen early. Let’s just hope that turns out for them. Go Bears!