Change is one of the few constants in Minor League Baseball, but players in their first professional season may experience more of it than others. The Timber Rattlers have two such players: Pitchers J.T. Hintzen and Clayton Andrews were selected in the tenth and 17th round of the 2018 draft, respectively, and both have reached the Midwest League as the latest stop in a long year.
"It was weird, I went to college, then we went to North Carolina for the National Championship, then I went home, got drafted, had to go back to Florida, then to Helena and now I'm here. It's just been all over, and now I finally get to be in the same place for a while," Hintzen said.
Hintzen played Division II collegiate baseball with Florida Southern College, the alma mater of longtime MLB pitchers Rob Dibble, Carlos Reyes and Brett Tomko, among others. During the 2018 collegiate season Hintzen posted a 14-0 record, a 1.77 ERA and allowed just 0.78 walks and hits per inning pitched.
Following the season Hintzen was given the Perfect Game Brett Tomko Award for being Division II's most outstanding pitcher. Four of the last five pitchers to receive that award were selected in the top ten rounds of that year's MLB draft. One, 2014 winner Dan Altavilla, is currently pitching in his third major league season with the Mariners.
[J.T. is] a young man that enjoys pitching, a young man that gets himself prepared in between outings very well," Timber Rattlers pitching coach Steve Cline said. "A lot of intensity, a lot of effort, but certainly someone that is very aggressive with his approach and goes right after hitters."
On the mound, Hintzen's low-90's fastball is boosted by some deception in his delivery.
"He comes from a little different, unique angle, the way the body posture is coming down the mound. I'm sure that adds to his stuff and gives his stuff a chance to play up a little bit," Cline said.
Hintzen has learned how to use his unusual delivery to his advantage, but also acknowledged that it takes more than that to succeed at the professional level.
"I always notice that some guys are a little uncomfortable facing me because of my arm slot. I kind of hide the ball really well. But otherwise, everybody's a professional here. They're paid to hit the ball," Hintzen said.
During his time with Wisconsin Hintzen has been used mostly in long relief, recording at least five outs in each of his first six outings. He's allowed more than one run just one time, and has struck out 12 while walking just three in his first 14 2/3 innings.
Hintzen pitched in 32 games for Florida Southern during his collegiate season, logging 96 2/3 innings despite pitching primarily out of the bullpen. Cline said that previous workload was taken into account when planning for his first professional season.
"He's in a tandem but not in a tandem," Cline said, referring to the practice of using two starting pitchers for extended innings in the same game. "I guess that's kind of talking out of both sides of my mouth, but he's scheduled to pitch about every fourth or fifth day. He's a little bit of a floater in that we'll use him if we need him on one day as opposed to the other, but with the right days of rest in between. So we'll monitor that, we'll monitor how many innings he's actually going to throw, along with the pitch count, to get him through the summer healthy."
Hintzen was the first player selected in the 2018 draft to join the Timber Rattlers and face the sometimes daunting task of trying to assimilate into a clubhouse where many of his teammates have known each other for years.
"I just kind of try to mix in as best I can. Don't say anything stupid on your first day, because you know you're the new guy. Play cards, just meet people, try to figure out what their interests are, what you can relate," Hintzen said.
In the meantime, Hintzen said the new ballparks and playing surfaces he's getting to see are the best part of life in the Midwest League.
"These are the best fields I've ever played on, as far as that goes. DII baseball was nice but it doesn't compare to this," Hintzen said.
Two weeks after Hintzen made his Midwest League debut, the Milwaukee Brewers sent another 2018 draftee to join him in the bullpen. Clayton Andrews was selected in the 17th round after two seasons at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California and a junior season at Long Beach State, where he was selected as a Second Team All American by D1Baseball and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
Andrews was a two-way player in college, leading the Big West Conference with 118 strikeouts as a pitcher but also logging 215 at bats as an outfielder, batting .302 and ranking among the team leaders in hits, runs, on-base percentage, walks, RBI and stolen bases.
Since turning professional Andrews has been used exclusively as a pitcher and struck out 18 batters in his first eleven professional innings between Helena and Wisconsin. His accomplishments are made all the more impressive by the fact that he is only 5'6" tall.
"Being left handed, he pitches with a lot of confidence, throws his stuff over the plate, and does typical stuff that a left-hander does," Cline said. "Does a little fastball-changeup where both pitches have a little armside tail to them. He can get his fastball to what I call the 'cross corner.' And so, so far so good for Clayton and it's refreshing because it's the beauty of our sport: We take all shapes and sizes. And a shout out to our scouting staff and scouting director for recognizing that and taking a chance on a young man that doesn't fit the classic mold of what you want to look for in a pro pitcher."
Like Hintzen, Andrews has been through a lot since his collegiate season started in February. While past players in his position have used words like "overwhelming" and "whirlwind" to describe the experience of their transition from amateur to professional baseball, Andrews did not.
"These last few months have been some of the best few months of my life," Andrews said. "I got to experience the dream of getting drafted, it's been my dream since I was a little kid. And then just the opportunity to play for the Brewers organization has been unbelievable. Helena was great, and now that I'm here I couldn't be happier."
Through his first few professional outings Andrews has adopted a simple approach to attacking hitters.
"I just try to go up there, throw strikes and keep guys off balance."
As was also the case with Hintzen, Andrews joined the organization having already pitched a fair amount in 2018. He threw 99 2/3 innings across 15 starts for Long Beach State and has tacked eleven more innings onto that total with his first eight professional appearances. He's been used exclusively out of the bullpen as a professional and gives the Timber Rattlers a second lefty option to use in relief, joining Cody Beckman. Cline said that Andrews' unusual stature and ability to throw from the left side give him some advantages on the mound.
"A little different look and being left-handed, that helps as well. Left handers have always had an advantage in this game and it will continue that way," Cline said.
Andrews has already had easily the longest season of his life, but one of his goals for his first professional campaign is to see it stretch on a little longer.
"Just do whatever I can to help us win. Win ball games, make the playoffs and see what happens," Andrews said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.