The first thing Kevin Hudzik did when he arrived home for the off-season was begin his research. He had decided a few weeks ago that he would spend as much time and energy as he possibly could to understand the scientific reasons behind his pitches and throwing motions. It was a daunting task, to be sure. Especially with a Fiancee eagerly planning a 2034 fall wedding. Even she understood how important the next two seasons were, delaying the wedding more than a year.
Sean Douglas, on the other hand, had a bachelor party to plan. They decided on Columbus, Ohio. Most people were coming from the Boston area or Indianapolis area (Hudzik’s hometown), and Columbus was sort of neutral ground. But Hudzik and Douglas felt it would also serve as a reminder what their goals truly were; to get to Columbus (the Millers AAA affiliate) as soon as possible next season.
Hudzik’s off-season of research had provided some interesting pieces of information. Long-toss was more important than either player had realized. The rotation of the rotator cuff was always known to be important; but Kevin had found workouts that would create more rotation. This would lead to a higher spin rate and higher velocity if trained correctly.
He called a few experts at Harvard that had just opened a new training facility that was measuring all sorts of different athletes in new and thoughtful ways. Golfers, tennis players, NFL quarterbacks, among others, had all been tested at the facility. Hudzik was curious if they could come up with a plan for him and Sean.
Two days after a successful and crime-free bachelor party, Douglas and Hudzik were walking briskly through the snow covered parking lots of Harvard University. They had an appointment at the new training facility that would allow the staff there to draw up a specific off-season plan.
When they arrived, the Millers GM surprised them.
“He told us he was impressed with our dedication to improving,” Douglas recalls. “And he let us know that the organization had been considering adding a few of these trainers to the staff full-time. For the first season, we’d get to test run these trainers basically on our own. We had our own personal trainers, essentially.”
While Hudzik and Douglas thought they were being treated special, the truth was that most minor leaguers had no interest in a drastic change to their off-season programs. Having two players willingly try out something the front office had believed in for a few years was the ideal situation. It also protected the organization in the event these new trends weren’t actually correct.
Essentially, the organization was using these two undrafted pitchers as guinea pigs. Little risk, potentially high reward.
Both pitchers followed their workout regimens as ordered. Unfortunately, two days before opening day for the Carolina Mudcats, Sean Douglas began dealing with a blister issue that was caused by his changeup grip. The organization let his blister heal for a few months, all the while working with him in extended spring training on once again changing his changeup grip. The pitch was slowly showing potential, so they didn’t want to scrap it completely yet. Sean Douglas didn’t make his AA debut until June 10, though.
Kevin Hudzik’s season began much more smoothly. He threw 6 shutout innings to open the year, and his first 7 starts he was as dominating as any pitcher in the minor leagues. He allowed just 2 runs in those 7 starts, going 5-0 with a 0.39 ERA, striking out 49 batters in 46 innings.
The velocity continued to improve. The changeup was getting more deceptive each outing. The front office began discussing a potential promotion to AAA, but instead decided they would control his innings over the next month or so. They didn’t want an injury to derail all of this progress, and the AAA pitching staff was dominating on it’s own. There simply wasn’t room. Hudzik would spend the entire season at the AA level, but his final numbers were incredibly impressive.
In 158 innings, Hudzik struck out 184 batters, going 13-7 with a 2.45 ERA in 27 starts. He averaged 10.5 K/9, a ridiculous number for a full-time starting pitcher. The improvement continued on a daily basis.
Unlike Hudzik, Douglas had a bit of adversity to overcome early in the season.
However, much like Hudzik, as soon as Douglas was actually pitching, he dominated. Douglas was moved between AA and AAA throughout the season. In 11 appearances at AA, over 19 innings, Douglas struck out FORTY TWO batters while walking just 7. He averaged 19.6 K/9 in those 19 innings. Douglas made 10 appearances at the AAA level, throwing 18 innings, and striking out THIRTY FIVE batters. That was good for a K/9 of 17.2. He struck out 77 batters in less than 38 innings between AA and AAA.
Douglas’ final appearance of the season was one of the most impressive relief appearances you will ever see. He pitched three shutout innings, allowing just 1 hit while striking out 8. As impressive as that was, Douglas said that was his second favorite outing.
“The 7 strikeouts in 2 innings is easily my favorite,” Douglas says.
A dropped third strike in a late August game gave Sean Douglas the rare feat of striking out 7 batters while getting just 6 outs. He faced 7 batters and struck out every single one.
Over Douglas’ final 5 appearances, all at the AAA level, he threw 10 1/3 shutout innings with 19 Ks. He looks to be a late-inning strikeout machine in the making, and if he and Hudzik can continue to push the limits of pitching development, there really may not be a limit to how good these pitchers can become.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Read Part IV Here