May-June 2020

Bethesda interview: Danny Hultzen

Pitcher Danny Hultzen, a Bethesda native, talks about getting picked second in the major league draft, the injuries that almost ended his career, and his first trip to the mound for the Chicago Cubs

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What effect did it have on your pitching?

I walked 20 or 25 guys a year in college [per roughly 100 innings]. In pro ball, I tried to not disappoint people. That led me to do too much on the mound, and try to strike everybody out. The guys at this level figure that out quickly. They’ll sit there and watch me walk them [75 walks in 124 innings in 2012].

Was the coaching staff trying to help you?

No. Which sucked, honestly. It’s something I should have spoken up more about during that time. I was going through mental battles affecting my physical performance. Because I got drafted so high, coaches don’t want to mess with you. I didn’t receive a lot of coaching, and that’s my own fault. They make it clear that it’s your career, your job to figure out what’s best for you. All the insecurities I had about not deserving to be there fed into that.

When did your shoulder start hurting?

A little in 2012, toward the end of the year. I attributed it to being my first pro season. In the beginning of 2013, I was in serious discomfort, but pitching through it because that’s the mentality I had. Everyone’s arm bothers them. You’re pitching well. The only way for my arm to feel good is to step way across my body, kind of sling it. I threw with my upper body and not necessarily my arm. The only reason I said something was because I don’t care if this is Game 7 of the World Series, I cannot lift my arm up to pitch tonight. I ended up having my first shoulder surgery by Dr. James Andrews at the end of the 2013 season.

Did you think your career was over?

They told me the extent of the injury, which was incredibly rare, and my chances of pitching again were very low. I always knew I wanted to give it a shot. My attitude my whole career was that I do not want to look back in 20 years and say: What if I had done a little more? Kept going? They said it was a 10% chance to pitch again. The surgery was Oct. 1, 2013. I spent two weeks in Florida because the surgery was extensive. My mom and dad came down. We fished when we weren’t rehabbing. I went back to Arizona, where the Mariners’ spring training complex is. I rehabbed basically that whole following year. All my strength, mobility, physical tests were great. There were very short periods of anxiety and doubt, but I would not dwell on it. The cliché is ‘control what you can control.’ I focused on the work I had to do.

What was your recovery period?

They give it a wide range of a year to a year and a half. Going into 2015, my arm felt fantastic until a certain point. Once I hit that point of throwing one, two, three, four innings at a time, I pushed it too much. I had similar feelings. I’m going to prove these guys didn’t make a mistake. I’m not going to be a bust. Then I went back to Jackson, Mississippi, the Mariners’ Double-A team, to play three games. But it got to the point again where I said: This isn’t going to work.

What did you do?

I went back to Arizona and tried to rehab, took time off, tried to get back to pitching again. It just never felt good. I probably could have gone out and pitched a little, but I knew it wouldn’t have lasted long. We had to shut down that entire rest of 2015. That was a really frustrating year because all of the rehab before it had gone well.

Did the rest help you?

I was excited moving into 2016. I threw one or two live batting practices in spring training, just a guy in the box, no fielders. I remember going to my locker and trying to reach my phone to check something. I genuinely could not lift my arm. I went in the training room and said, here we go again. I got another MRI and everything was torn again, in different spots.

Did you decide on surgery?

They suggested I try this alternative to platelet-rich plasma injections. It’s called Regenokine. A guy in Arizona shot me up and I had a brand-new arm. Even though I knew all this damage was in there, I was feeling good.

How long did that last?

This must have been in July when I was pitching again. I remember not feeling quite myself, but knowing I was able to work into it. But the second pitch in, I felt something. The first pitch, I think, was 90, 91 miles an hour. That second pitch after that was 82, me trying to throw as hard as I can. I remember being on the mound thinking this is the last time I’ll ever pitch. Just try to get these guys out. I gave up a triple, then somehow got three outs. I remember walking off the mound, and that was the only time I’ve really thought, this is it, this is over.

What happened?

I had to get another MRI. It showed that Regenokine worked a bit. But it was certainly a point where I needed to get this fixed again. The same tears in my labrum, rotator cuff and capsule. This led to the second surgery in July 2016. The Mariners’ doctor said, ‘You need to retire. You need to stop throwing baseballs. The damage in your shoulder is super extensive.’ Dr. Andrews said it looked horrible and my chances of coming back were not good, but I had a chance. That’s all I needed to hear. Disappointment and frustration set in, but it dissipates quickly. I really had to shift my mind to what I can do about it. It’s easy to play the victim, but I never allowed myself to feel that way. The willingness to keep going was instilled in me as a kid. You do everything you can, without making excuses.