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Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria
It has been a big year for Indians top pitching prospect left-hander David Huff.  While he certainly was one of the Indians top pitching prospects coming into this season, there were some question marks about his health, and whether or not he could live up to being a first round pick.  Not anymore.  Huff has proven to be one of the fastest rising pitching prospects in baseball this season, and is easily a Top 100 prospect in all of baseball.  T had a chance to talk with him last weekend.

David HuffIt has been a big year for Indians top pitching prospect left-hander David Huff.

Coming into the season Huff only pitched a total of 67.1 innings the last year and a half since he signed and was drafted as a supplemental first round pick by the Indians in the 2006 Draft out of UCLA.  While he certainly was one of the Indians top pitching prospects coming into this season, there were some question marks about his health, and whether or not he could live up to being a first round pick.

Not anymore.

Huff has proven to be one of the fastest rising pitching prospects in baseball this season, and is easily a Top 100 prospect in all of baseball.  Many will likely tab Huff as the Indians #1 prospect next year, and everyone surely will have him in the Indians top five.  Huff started the year in Double-A Akron and flat out dominated, going 5-1 with a 1.92 ERA in 11 starts, and held batters to a .189 average while striking out almost a batter an inning with 62 strikeouts in 65.2 innings pitched.

The Indians promoted Huff to Triple-A Buffalo on June 6th, and in nine starts with Buffalo he has not really skipped a beat going 2-3 with a 3.19 ERA while holding batters to a .240 average and striking out more than a batter an inning with 50 strikeouts in 48 innings pitched.  In 20 combined starts at Akron and Buffalo, Huff is 7-4 with a 2.45 ERA, and in 113.2 innings pitched he has only allowed 88 hits, 19 walks, and has struck out 112 batters.  His WHIP is an incredible 0.94, and he has an astonishing 6:1 strikeout to walk rate.

"He has really been impressive this year," said Indians Farm Director Ross Atkins in a recent interview.  "Every time we expect that maybe there will be a hiccup there just isn't one.  He answers every challenge and is an extremely tough individual.  Our expectations and standards of him have been very high because of his talent and ability."

Huff is certainly enjoying his success, but being as competitive as he is, he always strives to be better.

"Everything just feels great," said Huff in an interview over the weekend.  "I'm still kind of getting used to everything here in Buffalo.  It's been a real good adjustment, but you can never be satisfied.  You have to keep pushing, keep getting better and playing hard.  You can never be content with what you are doing so far.  There is always room for improvement and room for moving forward."

Huff may be as close to the complete package as you can get with a pitcher.  He may not throw the ball 98 MPH, but he consistently pitches around 91-93 MPH and has topped out at high as 94 MPH.  He also throws a devastating changeup which is pretty much his money pitch.  Not only does he have the talent, but the 6'2" 190 pound left-hander has an incredible feel for pitching.  You can have all the talent in the world and that 98 MPH fastball teams and fans drool over, but if you can't control where it is going, have very good secondary stuff, and know how to attack hitters, you won't go very far.

People outside of the Indians organization certainly recognize Huff's value and talent.

"I like him as a middle of the rotation guy," said a scout for a National League club.  "He has a veteran attack plan, and for him it is all about command, movement and velocity.  His fastball plays up because of his plus changeup, and his changeup is a legitimate weapon against lefties and righties.  He is in the upper echelon of the [Indians] system."

Coming out of college Huff's changeup was widely considered as the best in the draft that year.  For a lot of pitchers, learning how to throw a changeup and get a good feel for the pitch is usually what determines their fate as a starter or a reliever so that they have that effective third pitch.  Huff has never had a problem with the changeup, as he has been throwing it his entire life.

"It is just one of those things where I have thrown it my whole life along with my fastball," said Huff.  "I mean grips have changed over time, but really it is just every time I go and play catch with somebody I am throwing it.  That's the same approach that I take when I am throwing it in a game.  [When the catcher] gives me the target I can throw it in there.  The good part about it is I can throw it in any count.  I am very comfortable and have a lot of confidence with it, almost as much confidence as I have in my fastball."

Huff's fastball has really become a weapon for him as well.  His velocity is very much like Indians left-handed starter Cliff Lee where it plays up some because of some deception in his delivery.  But, while Huff does not overpower hitters, what mostly makes his fastball so effective is his unbelievable confidence in it and the command he displays by working it to both sides of the plate and to the corners on all four quadrants.  He has the best fastball command in the entire system, and uses that command to his advantage by aggressively attacking hitters.

"Yeah, to me throwing the fastball to both sides of the plate keeps hitters off balance," said Huff.  "They don't really get comfortable in the box like they do with a guy who always throws the fastball away.  They start sitting on it away, and once I see that then I throw it in and it makes them very uncomfortable and it almost catches them off guard.  Plus I throw four off speed pitches for strikes.  I throw them in and out of the zone almost locating them each time."

Huff knows how to pitch and is very smart.  He is a pitcher you like to watch pitch because he moves the ball around in and out, gets the breaking ball and changeup over, and knows how to effectively use all his pitches.  As this season has played out Huff has been trying to really hone in on his mechanics and make sure he is more cognizant of when his mechanics start to drift a little.

"What I am really trying to do is maintain my mechanics," said Huff.  "For me, when things are going good I kind of start losing focus on what got me to that point.  I start not really struggling, but kind of just get away from it.  In between starts I am always really trying to concentrate on my mechanics, hitting my balance point, using my back leg with a little bit of bend to really drive off the rubber towards home plate and get full extension.  My last couple outings, as good as they were, I noticed on video I was not getting much extension as I was almost finishing straight up.  Granted I got away with a few pitches, but that goes back to there is always room for improvement.  Besides staying healthy, that's what I have been concentrating on this entire year."

The key to Huff's future will be the development of an effective breaking ball as a third pitch to use against left-handers.  In addition to his fastball and changeup, Huff also throws a 12-6 curveball and a slider.  Both are good pitches for him and he commands then well, but going into the season the Indians felt the curveball needed some more work to become yet another weapon for him in his pitching arsenal.  Huff has made strides with both pitches this year and now feels he can use them effectively in any count and to any batter.

"Yeah, the curveball is there," said Huff.  "My mechanics are good where it is real sharp and there is a lot of depth to it.  I noticed this past outing I was casting my curveball a little bit.  I mostly use my slider as an out pitch and the curveball as a show-me pitch.  The slider is firm and there is a lot of depth to that, which is surprising for a slider but it works.  The curveball has gotten a lot better since college."

One of Huff's biggest fans is his older brother Tim, and they have a unique relationship where Tim is almost like a personal pitching coach to him.  After every start, Tim will call his younger brother and go over the start literally pitch-by-pitch and tell Dave what he did wrong and how he could be better.David Huff

"The good thing is we have live video feed over the internet so he is able to watch my outings whereas before he was only able to listen to my outings," said Huff.  "He watches all my games and really analyzes everything and when he sees good things he tells me.  Most of the time it is negative things like 'you need to work on this or you need to get more extension', but occasionally every now and again I will run into a positive compliment from him (laughs).  It's good because I never get complacent with him because he is always telling me that I need to work on something and I need to strive toward something better, so that is what is good about it."

Tim Huff played baseball all throughout college at Cypress Junior College, Chapman University and Long Beach State.  Tim could have signed and continued his baseball career as a professional, but he instead wanted to focus on business and went back to school at Chapman for a master's degree in business.  While he has never considered going into coaching, his expertise in pitching comes from his ability to soak in everything he has learned over the years from playing.  He has acted like a human sponge and retained everything from conversations he has had with coaches such as Dave Snow (Long Beach State), Mike Mayne (Orange Coast College), and many others where he would just listen, absorb, analyze and apply every they said to him.

"I am five years younger than him, so the whole time he was going through [baseball] and learning he was teaching me," said Huff.  "It was great because when I was in youth ball he was teaching and getting me ready for high school.  When I was in high school he was getting me ready for college.  When I was in college he was getting me ready for professional baseball.  It was just one of those things where he always emphasized mechanics and everything like that by saying ‘this is how you need to pitch' or ‘you can't just throw it as hard as you can' or ‘you need to spot it up and throw off-speed for strikes'.  Over the years it has almost become second nature to me, and now it is just putting it all into a gameplan."

With his master's in business, Tim actually helps his younger brother out on the financial side of things as well.  Life in the minors can be a bit crazy as players can get called up on a whim to the next level, which often has them scurrying to get their affairs in order and find a place to stay once they get to their new destination.  Typically, the Indians house players in a hotel for around three days to give them time to find an apartment or make living arrangements, which can put a lot of stress on what already is a nerve-wracking time in being called up.  With Tim around, he does a lot of these things for Dave to help his transition at each stop whether it be packing up his stuff or finding him a new place to stay.

"In addition to helping me out with pitching and stuff, he also helps me out more on the financial side because he is a business major," said Huff.  "So, he helps me on and off the field so that is good."

While his older brother Tim has been a big influence on his baseball career, Huff attributes a lot of his success to his former coach John Savage.  Savage has been instrumental in the development of college pitchers in the past, namely Barry Zito when he was the pitching coach at the University of Southern California.  Savage recruited Huff out of high school to play at the University of California - Irvine (UC-Irvine), but after his freshman season Savage left to coach at UCLA.  This resulted in Huff leaving UC-Irvine and attending three different colleges in three years to follow Savage to UCLA.

"Yeah, my first year I was coached by John Savage over at UC-Irvine," said Huff.  "He left and he was the one who recruited me.  The coach that came in did not recruit me at all coming out of high school, so he didn't know anything about me and I was like 'you know, this is not a good fit for me I need to leave'.  I tried to transfer over to UCLA and they said okay but that I would have to sit out a year.  And I was like 'okay, that's not going to fly' so I ended up going to Cypress Junior College for a year under Scott Pickler.  Savage would come to my games and we would always talk.  It was pretty much a given that I was going to go to UCLA out of Cypress.  I was kind of entertaining some other schools, but what it pretty much came down to is I was going to go to UCLA.  And then I ended up over at UCLA with him again.  To me, he is one of the top coaches in the nation as far as pitching goes."

Over the course of his three-year three-stop college tour, Huff was drafted two times before he was drafted by the Indians.  In 2003 the Los Angeles Angels drafted him out of high school in the 31st round.  Huff did not sign and choose to instead go and play under Savage at UC-Irvine.  After his sophomore season at Cypress Junior College in 2005 the Philadelphia Phillies drafted Huff in the 19th round, but again Huff chose to follow Savage to UCLA.  The Indians ended up drafting and signing Huff the next year, and to this day Huff believes the decision he made to go to college for three years was the right choice as it helped him grow as a person and player.

"I believe for most guys that college is good," said Huff.  "It gives you three years to mature not only as a person but as a baseball player no matter what position you play.  You also get that growth and put on some muscle.  You have a more comfortable feel for what you do.  Coming out of high school you are the young kid.  As a teenager you are like ‘oh crap I am going against guys that are twice my age, I need to show the world everything'.  You end up kind of over thinking everything, overthrowing everything, and overdoing everything.  If you are a guy who is throwing 95 MPH and you just have God given talent, then yeah, maybe getting drafted out of high school and pursuing [professional baseball] is probably a good thing."

One of the biggest changes for Huff as a pitcher was how much the cerebral part of the game developed for him from the time he graduated high school to the time he was drafted and signed by the Indians three years later.  In high school, most kids that throw in the mid 80s or above just let it fly and dominate on sheer velocity.  However, in the professional ranks a pitcher has to be able to learn how to "pitch" and not just "throw", and this is something that Huff really picked up on in his three-year college career.

"For me, I believe coming out of high school I was not ready," said Huff. "Not only mentally, but what I know now compared to what I knew then the difference is night and day.  In high school, it was ‘throw the fastball and get them out with off-speed'.  Now it is 'okay, read the swing on this pitch, see where they are standing in the box, and move onto another pitch or change location' or ‘okay he had an open stance so he might be lunging for that outside corner so let's try to beat him in'.  It is just stuff like that I see nowadays that I did not see in high school."

Huff is one of those pitchers that who has gone very far very fast.  Just two years since he was drafted he is on the brink of starting his major league career.   With the Indians no longer contending this year it may actually hurt Huff's chances at making his major league debut sometime this season.  In a year where they are in need of starting pitching, had they been under pressure to win now they may have called Huff up already.  But, now that they are retooling for 2009, they can take it easy with Huff the rest of the year.  In fact, it would be a very big surprise to see Huff make an appearance in Cleveland this year.
David Huff
Some may question why that would be the case, but after missing roughly two thirds of the season last year from a UCL sprain in his pitching elbow, Huff is being held to a strict innings pitched count.  At 113.2 innings pitched already, he likely will get at most another 50 innings (about eight starts) before he is shutdown for the season.  With Buffalo's season set to end in roughly six weeks, it should time up just right for Huff to make those eight starts and reach that threshold.  So, when Buffalo's season ends at the end of August, Huff's season likely will too.

In addition to that, the Indians probably prefer not to roster Huff this year.  Huff is not eligible yet to be considered for the Rule 5 Draft in December, so by leaving him off the roster it allows the Indians to use a 40-man roster spot on another player who is up for Rule 5 eligibility that they may want to protect on the 40-man roster.

Also, by rostering Huff this season, he would be on the 40-man roster next year and if he were to not earn a big league job out of spring training the Indians would be forced to use one of their three option years on him when they send him to the minors at the start of the season.  By not being on the 40-man roster to start next season no option would be used when sending him to the minors.  After seeing the Indians lose some valuable players like Brandon Phillips, Jeremy Guthrie and others because their option years were quickly used up, this is definitely something they have to consider.

In any case, whenever Huff makes his big league debut he will be ready.

"I believe I am ready," said Huff.  "It is their decision.  They are trying to build a winning team right now.  If I get that phone call this year I'll be ready and we'll see and go from there."

When that time comes the entire Huff family is set to come to Cleveland or wherever he is playing to take part in the celebration of his big accomplishment.  Already in veteran form, Huff tries to keep the excitement in check and not show it too much.

"Yeah, I'm very excited," said Huff.  "Even though I don't show it, yes, I'm very excited."

Photos courtesy of Ken Carr and the Buffalo Bisons.

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