Hutchison brings maturity to young Jays’ staff

Drew Hutchison joined Brady and Walker to discuss his progress on the mound and where the Blue Jays stand in the AL East.

So there Devon Travis stood: a second baseman from Wellington, Fla., and one of the best high school baseball players in the state on display at a regional All-Star Game. Next thing he knows, the kid beside him at shortstop—who’d turned a double play with him earlier in the game—gets called on to pitch. “I’m thinking: ‘All these guys, and they’re getting the shortstop to pitch?’” Travis says. “So the guy goes out and throws his first pitch 93 [mph]. Easy. The shortstop’s out there, and I mean he’s throwing fuel.”

The shortstop was Drew Hutchison. Six years later, he’d be teammates with Travis again, both members of the Toronto Blue Jays, both playing on opening day at Yankee Stadium. Along the way, Hutchison transformed into a full-time pitcher, negotiated with the Blue Jays up to the 11th hour after being selected in the 15th round of the 2009 draft, underwent Tommy John surgery and battled his way back to the major leagues. They say the Blue Jays don’t have an ace, that their pitchers are either too old or too young to be considered as such. They obviously haven’t spoken to Hutchison, the Jays’ young man with the old soul. The quiet future of Toronto’s rotation. “I’ve always considered myself to be an ace,” Hutchison said earlier this spring, without a trace of bragging. “I’ve thought that since my first workout with the Jays.”

Hutchison saw all the scouts throughout his 2009 senior season at Lakeland High School, because in high school baseball in central Florida, they’re just part of the scenery. Hutchison could pick them out from a distance. He’d seen them come through before, scouting teammates like Evan Chambers and Keon Broxton. Chris Sale, too. And he’d see them again when his team travelled to other cities for Florida 6A competition—to see Casey Kelly and Scooter Gennett from Sarasota High or his teammate with the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, Yordy Cabrera. “I knew who they were scouting,” Hutchison says. “Pretty much everybody but me.”

Still, those eyes noticed Hutchison during his senior year. He had more than held his own against top-flight competition, after all—as a shortstop and a pitcher. And he had the confidence of a big-time prospect: As a junior, he’d come in to pitch and buzzed Kelly—a man-mountain of a boy who would be the Boston Red Sox’s first-round pick in 2008—in a playoff game, then shot back at him angrily when Kelly started to chirp him. “I mean, it was loud enough for everyone about five miles around to hear,” says Hutchison’s high school coach, Mike Campbell, laughing. “The thing you have to remember with Drew is that whenever he was playing or pitching, it was against draftable talent. Literally every guy he faced or faced him was at least going to be a Div. I guy. He had no choice but to be that competitive.”

One of the scouts witnessing the Kelly-Hutchison matchup was Joel Grampietro, now with the Chicago White Sox but then with the Blue Jays. Grampietro was big on the often-overlooked Hutchison and pounded the table in the Blue Jays draft room whenever the kid’s name came up. He fought for Hutchison even though, in the words of then Blue Jays director of scouting Jon Lalonde, the prospect “wasn’t exactly some kind of Johnny Showcase.”

“He was still there in the 15th round when it got around to us, and we liked him enough to take him even though the industry figured he was going to college.”

But even as a teenager, Hutchison showed an understanding of the business of baseball—another product of central Florida. He and his family did their research heading into the 2009 draft, and set a figure of $400,000 as a signing bonus. If a team offered that, he’d sign; if not, he’d start classes at Florida’s Stetson University come fall. The Blue Jays were willing to go to $300,000; Hutchison said no thanks and moved into his dormitory. He was unloading his last box when Lalonde called him on Saturday, Aug. 17. The Jays had money left after failing to sign James Paxton and Jake Eliopoulos. Was $400,000 still Hutchison’s asking price?

Using an agent would have cost Hutchison his college eligibility, but fortunately, he had first-hand experience. Coyly, he says, “We had family friends familiar with the industry.” But the Hutchisons also had ample primary sources: Chambers and Broxton had been drafted, but they turned down contracts and instead went to Hillsborough Community College and Santa Fe Community College, respectively. Chambers was the 84th overall pick, taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009; Broxton was chosen 95th by the Diamondbacks in 2009 after turning down the Phillies when they drafted him the year before.

Little did baseball know that Hutchison and his family were taking notes. Literally. “I knew exactly what it would take on draft day to give up my scholarship,” says Hutchison. “It was pretty black-and-white to me. We did our research. I understood what the process was going to be like.”

This is vintage Hutchison: limit the drama, limit the damage.

Considering how astutely he managed becoming a pro, it’s hardly a surprise the Blue Jays developed a newfound respect for the wise kid with the bright future. Lalonde, now a pro scout with the Blue Jays, says, “In retrospect … we should have liked Drew a lot more than we did.”

After impressing in his rookie year, injury and Tommy John surgery killed Hutchison’s 2013 campaign. Last season, though, he cemented his post-surgery return to the ranks of the living with 32 starts and 184 2/3 innings, putting him in position to start opening day this year after Marcus Stroman suffered a season-ending knee injury. And on April 6, he became the youngest to do that in franchise history at 24 years, 227 days old—97 days younger than Todd Stottlemyre was when he opened the 1990 season.

With a calm, low-key presence on the mound that belies his tender years, Hutchison is in some ways the forgotten man of a strange rotation: quick-working 200-game winner Mark Buehrle; knuckleballer R.A. Dickey; Daniel Norris, the rookie who lives in a van; and Aaron Sanchez, who has rare, raw power stuff. Even Marcus Stroman, social media monster that he is, dwarfs him despite being just five-foot-eight. So who’s Hutchison in this mix? “If you knew Drew in high school, you’d recognize him as the same person he is now,” says Campbell, his high school coach. “There’s a real steadiness to him.”

Hutchison’s walk-out music is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special,” released in 1975—15 years before he was born. On a youth movement of a team, he is the conscience, the old soul. “When you talk to him and see him on the mound, you feel like he’s been in the game longer than he has,” says Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. “You feel like you’re dealing with a veteran, just by how he controls his craft and the composure he has and the way he goes over stuff in meetings.”

Manager John Gibbons sees similarities between Hutchison and Shaun Marcum, a bulldog starter who was also a converted shortstop. Others are reminded of another former right-hander, Pat Hentgen, now a Blue Jays adviser, who says he “absolutely” believes Hutchison can “become an elite pitcher.”

But there’s a substantial “if” attached. The Blue Jays became concerned last season with Hutchison’s efficiency and walk rate against left-handed batters. Right-handers posted an OPS of .605 against him, lefties .817. Hutchison fiddled around with his slider, turning it into such an effective pitch that FanGraphs did a geekish study on it, and he tightened it even further in spring training. But both he and the Jays know that his changeup must be better to lefties—along with his fastball command, a point emphasized by his early-season struggles. “Dave Stewart taught me a long time ago that you need to know what side of the plate is the dominant side for you,” says Hentgen. “It’s about figuring out what you’re good at and then coming up with a plan. Hutch just has to find that point of execution where he lets go of it and it’s going to end up on the black. ”

Martin, for one, doesn’t see Hutchison having an issue making adjustments: “He’s a fun guy to work with because you can tell he’s all about getting better.”

Talk to Hutchison about his rehabilitation from Tommy John, for example, and while you’ll get stories of discomfort and self-doubt, you’ll also hear him talk about how slow and deliberate the game seemed when he was forced to watch it on TV. “I’d be sitting there and see something and think: ‘What are you doing?’” Hutchison says. “I remember speaking to Dane [Johnson, the Blue Jays bullpen coach] about it, and he’d heard that from a lot of guys in my position.” Hutchison isn’t certain what it means, but he’s filed it away because that’s what big-leaguers do. “Drew just gets it,” says Martin. “He gets what it means to be a major-league pitcher.”

With Hutchison in the mix, the Blue Jays might be on the verge of something special. On opening day at Yankee Stadium, the Jays had the only staff in the majors with no starting pitchers between the ages of 25 and 35. Whether the team’s youthful vigour translates into a playoff berth in 2015 remains to be seen, but in Hutchison, Sanchez, Norris, Miguel Castro, Roberto Osuna and Stroman, Toronto has the makings of a generational pitching staff. All of them drafted or signed, all home-grown, all cost-controlled for five or six more years. Where does Hutchison see himself fitting into this promising group? “As a group of young guys, we all get along, even though every one of us is different,” he says. “I’m not very loud. In fact, I’m probably the quietest of the group. But I’ve always felt that the way to get the most out of anything is to be yourself.” After all, you never know who’s watching.

This story appears in the May 17 issue of Sportsnet magazine.

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