Despite low odds of playing professionally again, Hultzen worked on a comeback. It would take 12 to 18 months for his shoulder to recover. But he struggled with discomfort again in 2015, and by 2016 had trouble lifting his arm. An alternative treatment helped get Hultzen pitching again, but he later needed additional surgery.
After the Mariners did not re-sign him, Hultzen returned to UVA in 2017 to rehab his arm and finish his degree in history. When he was back in pitching shape, the Cubs made him an offer in 2018. He reached the organization’s Triple-A team in Des Moines, Iowa, before getting that call he’d longed for—from the big leagues—last September. Hultzen pitched three and a third innings in six games for the Cubs that month. He gave up no runs, four hits, walked two and struck out five.
Bethesda Magazine spoke with Hultzen, 30, in the offseason, after the Cubs offered him a minor league contract and invited him to spring training in Arizona with a chance to make the team. He pitched one inning in a spring training game this year and then was sent to the minors—right before the coronavirus pandemic put baseball on hold. He stayed in Arizona to wait for play to resume.
How did you get into baseball?
I started when my older brother, Joe, was into baseball. He was three years older. By the time he was playing, I was going to games and playing catch with my dad in the outfield and just fell in love with the game. When my brother was away, my dad and I would go to the elementary school at Carderock Springs [in Bethesda]. He’d hit grounders and fly balls for hours and hours. If my brother and my dad were busy, a brick wall on the front of the house took a beating from me throwing a ball against it. My target area was right above a hose spigot.
What did you do after playing Little League?
Travel ball. It got more serious and we would play at national-level tournaments. That was probably ages 10 to 15. A high school friend connected me with the Richmond Braves, out of Virginia, to play in the summer. I played with friends and traveled the country.
How often were you scouted in high school?
I was a late bloomer. My time with the Braves and my first few years in high school I was probably 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds of pure baby fat. Junior and senior year of high school I hit my growth spurt, and that kind of was the time I was getting recruited by colleges, and pro scouts. My senior year, I went from 5-9 to 6-2. Maybe I grew more in college. I went from 160 to 190 pounds maybe. After that growth spurt, I threw a lot harder. I was probably throwing in the high 80s as a freshman and sophomore in high school. Then, junior and senior year I was in the low 90s pretty consistently.
When did the scouting intensify?
I had committed to UVA. St. Albans was playing at St. Anne’s-Belfield in Charlottesville. Kyle Long, who became a Pro Bowl lineman for the Chicago Bears, played baseball in high school and was a 6-5 monster throwing 97-mile-an-hour heat bombs. There must have been 15 scouts there for him. I pitched that game and everything went well. He didn’t pitch, but he batted. The pro scout attention for me really escalated after that. It wasn’t like they were there to see me—I happened to be there. There was definitely scouts at almost every game after that. It signaled that I had maybe a better chance than I thought of playing pro ball and maybe making the major leagues. But I had zero intention of signing out of high school. I really wanted to go to college and become more mature before I went off into professional baseball.
Were you surprised the Diamondbacks drafted you out of high school?
We made it clear that I was going to college. The 10th round is high to be drafted like that. They made a few offers. You’d have to ask my dad—I don’t even know what the concrete offers were. There wasn’t really a price that would drive me away from college.
Was college what you expected?
Everything I’ve learned about baseball, or 99% of it, has been in college. Unbelievable lifelong relationships. Learning to live on your own, manage yourself. Growing as a man. I would have had no shot living on my own as an 18-year-old in the minor leagues.
What did you think about Seattle drafting you second at UVA?
We went into it thinking I might be picked later—maybe by the Nationals, who picked sixth [and took Rendon]. Coach said it would be good for our program, so we had a draft-watch party, which I wasn’t totally comfortable with. I don’t like being the center of attention. After a few minutes, my name gets called. I remember being shocked, putting my hands on my head. I had a little earpiece in. The TV was delayed a few seconds, so I heard it first. They see me react and everybody starts to explode.
What was it like to be picked so high?
My physical skills I was very confident about. Especially my junior year, I knew that you could put me against any team in the nation and I would give our team a chance to win. But whether I deserved that success was something I struggled with. I worried way more about people’s opinions of me than I worried about my opinion of myself, which had avalanching effects on my career. It stemmed from getting drafted way higher than I thought I would and signing for a lot more money than I thought I would. Which is fantastic—don’t get me wrong. I know it sounds like I’m biting the silver spoon. But it was something I struggled with, thinking these guys picked me this high, I’ve gotta strike everybody out. If I struggle, I’ll disappoint the front office, my coaches, the Seattle fans.