If you’re not an Astros fan, you’re probably unaware that James Hoyt exists. The 30-year-old rookie started the season in Triple-A, and seven relievers on the team have thrown more innings than him. There are a lot of things to write about in the middle of May. What’s up with Ryan Zimmerman? Whose soul did Yonder Alonso lock away in the humming amulet he keeps around his neck? Is it Jim Thome’s? I’ll bet it is. Poor, poor Jim Thome.
But I’m here to share fun facts about James Hoyt, who is one of the most compelling stories in baseball, a subset of the real world that contains all sorts of compelling stories already. If you don’t think that the sixth reliever on the Astros’ depth chart can be compelling, well, you have a good nose for this kind of stuff. You can’t just get in the van of everyone who claims there’s something compelling inside.
There’s a case to be made here, though. And it goes something like this:
He’s struck out 13 of the 21 batters he’s faced this year
Technically, this is the most important factlet, because if he had struck out three of the 21 batters he’s faced this year, he wouldn’t have caught my attention. But while he’s probably not going to strike out 20.6 batters for every nine innings he throws, it’s nearly impossible to miss that many bats without having something special. Everyone loves a good sample-size reference, but when it comes to strikeout rate, things can stabilize mighty fast.
It’s not an anomalous strikeout rate for him, either. Since joining affiliated baseball, here’s what he’s done:
2013 (A+, AA): 11.5
2014 (AA, AAA): 11.8
2015 (AAA): 12.1
2016 (AAA): 15.2
The line on the graph doesn’t have to go straight up to 27.0, but don’t rule it out.
This is his slider
It’s a fine slider. And Hoyt throws it a lot. He’ll throw it when he’s ahead in the count, of course, to get hitters to chase.
It’s the kind of slider he can throw five times in an at-bat, and still get the hitter to chase the sixth time. More importantly, perhaps, is that Hoyt can pitch backwards with it, throwing it for strikes when he needs to even up the count. Here it is on a 2-1 count:
He’ll throw it to steal a strike on the first pitch of an at-bat. He’ll throw it to close the at-bat. Really, find someone who’s as smitten with you as Evan Gattis is with Hoyt’s slider.
This is his splitter/change/what-have-you
Brooks Baseball has it as a changeup. Jeff Sullivan has it as a splitter, and so does Hoyt, so that’s officially what it is. But it’s a fine line between a vulcan change and a split-finger, enough to mess up the algorithms. What we know is that it goes about 5 mph slower than his fastball, and it drops. It’s a doohickey. And it keeps left-handers honest.
Of the 13 doohickeys Hoyt has thrown this year, 11 of them have come to left-handers. They look like this:
That’s going about as fast as a Marco Estrada fastball, except you can make sound effects when you throw it. Like, “Frooooooooop!” or “Bwooooooup!” It’s the pitch that Hoyt credits his surge to, which makes sense. He’s not just a ROOGY anymore.
His first gig in pro baseball was with Jose Canseco and the Yuma Scorpions in 2011
Evan Drellich has the definitive feature on these years, but the list of key points goes like this:
- He paid $100 to try out for the Yuma Scorpions, who were being managed by Canseco at the time.
- He was teammates with Tony Phillips, 52 years old, who took him under his wing
- He was 24, and his first season went well enough, but not so well that major league teams paid attention
He played for three different teams in 2012
Because of the last one on that list, see. He floated from the Edinburg Roadrunners to the Olmecas de Tabasco to the Wichita Wingnuts, none of which are affiliated with a major league team.
He played in Mexico because those teams actually pay.
“I made $600 a month taxed playing in the independent league,” Hoyt said. “So I’m taking home like a $400 check. The Mexican League team called and offered me $9,000-$10,000 to play down there for a few months. I couldn’t turn that down.”
And he did well, striking out 20 batters in 13⅓ innings. Here’s one of those strikeouts:
That video is courtesy of James Hoyt, who uploaded it to his own YouTube channel. Which is something you do when you think, “Hot damn, I’m pitching on TV!”
Which is something you do when you’re pretty sure the major leagues are a pipe dream.
He was David Peralta’s teammate on the Wichita Wingnuts
Part of me wants to think this is a fluke, that a million monkeys sat down at a million typewriters to type out a million independent-league rosters, and two of the players eventually made contributions to a major league team.
Another part of me wants to find the Wingnuts’ director of baseball operations and introduce him or her to the GM for my favorite team. They have something you can’t teach. They got the eye.
There were other American Association players that season with experience in the majors, but they were mostly on their way down. Nate Robertson. D’Angelo Jimenez. Reggie Abercrombie. Players like that. As far as I can tell, just Chaz Roe and Tim Adleman clawed their way up to the majors from the AA, too.
But Peralta and Hoyt were teammates, and I’d like to think they had a Mario Kart session or eight where they daydreamed together. Except they couldn’t afford actual Mario Kart, so they were recreating it with items from a fast food restaurant. Those little tubs of barbeque sauce were probably the blue shells.
I’ll just assume this is canon now.
Bill Buckner was his high school coach
Hoyt was just the second player in the history of Boise High to make the majors, with the first one being five-time All-Star Larry Jackson. That’s because Idaho has the same problems as the other Mountain States: sparse population, a lot of land to cover, and too much weather. Idaho (and Wyoming and Montana and ...) don’t produce a lot of major leaguers for a reason.
Yet there was a former All-Star coaching baseball. And not only was Buckner coaching, but he convinced Hoyt to stick with baseball instead of basketball.
James Hoyt wanted to take his 6’6” frame and do the logical thing. He wanted to follow his passion and play basketball.
His coach saw an opportunity, though. And he convinced him to use his size in a different sport, to stick with baseball.
In other words, Bill Buckner wasn’t going to let his player watch this opportunity go right through his legs.
That text isn’t exactly in the profile linked above, but it should be.
He was teammates at Centenary College with Seth Lugo
There’s a fair chance that neither the Wichita Wingnuts or the Centenary College Gents will produce another major leaguer for the next 20 years. But wherever Hoyt goes, he either brings majors dust with him, or he’s sprinkled with it by a kind and loving teammate.
He came with Evan Gattis to the Astros
As long as we’re rolling through the random, unlikely stories in baseball, sure, why not? If you aren’t familiar with Gattis, please spend some time reading the New York Times feature on him. He, like Hoyt, wasn’t drafted. He worked odd jobs and saw the country, too. His road had some deeper potholes, but there are definite parallels.
The Astros probably had a list that read something like ...
- Evan Gattis
- James Hoyt
- Brad Stantle (former shark fisherman and saxophone player)
- Martin Perrera (43-year-old pitcher with 18.0 K/9 during six years in a federal penitentiary)
- Mike Johanns (former Secretary of Agriculture)
... and told the Braves to pick one after Gattis. They got lucky and nabbed Hoyt in the deal.
He’s depth on a contending team that knows how to deploy relievers unconventionally
Last year, no one was entirely clear who Chris Devenski really was, but the Astros had a pretty good idea. They turned him into their version of Andrew Miller, a multi-inning reliever who took over the middle-inning messes like Goose Gossage and the firemen of yore. It worked. Oh, how it worked.
With someone like Devenski, though, who might pitch two high-leverage innings and make himself unavailable for the next game, the Astros will need their sixth and seventh relievers more than an average team. They’ll need someone like Hoyt.
I would comment on his chances to fill that role well, but I’m stuck watching those slider GIFs.
And that’s the abridged story of James Hoyt, who probably shouldn’t be here. The Astros are glad that he is, though, because that slider-splitter combination is lethal. We’re still in small-sample-size territory, of course, so don’t scurry to pick him up in your fantasy league just yet. But in a game filled with compelling stories, this is one of the best ones going.