This article also appears in the second edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the upcoming homestand that runs Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Purchase tickets to those games here.
Written by Ryan Young
The story of Fresno right-handed reliever James Hoyt spans two countries and 10 states. Part of his movement has been by curiosity and the other by virtue of chasing the ultimate dream of playing Major League Baseball. In what may be construed as a long and strange trip, it has taken two colleges, a job working on sail boats, three independent league stops, a stint in Mexico, and play across three minor league levels to get him to where he is today.
“For me, it’s obviously not the normal route to professional baseball,” smiles Hoyt as he sits on a bench at Cashman Field in Las Vegas prior to the Grizzlies series finale during part one of a two-city road trip. His casual tones suggest that he’s completely at ease with the unconventional route he’s taken to ascend to the Triple-A level, but there’s also a heavy sense of determination in his eyes that tells of the learning experiences he’s gathered along the way.
When reflecting back to his days as a 6-6, 190-pound high school senior, the thought of sitting in a dugout as a member of the Houston Astros organization couldn’t even be imagined. The 28-year-old notes that he had average stuff at best when he graduated from Boise High School in Idaho and moved to attend Palomar Junior College (Calif.) on a baseball scholarship. The San Marcos-based school was in a familiar area to him, as yearly visits to his mom’s side of the family in San Diego (35-minute car ride south) made the transition easier than most for a young college kid.
After a successful freshman and sophomore campaign on the diamond, an opportunity opened up to transfer to Centenary College in Louisiana and pitch at the Division I level.
“I thought, ‘well this is cool’, since it meant I’d get to pitch against LSU, Texas A&M, and some other big schools,” recalls Hoyt. “I started to get a little more interested in baseball and thought I may have a chance at getting to the next level. Coming into my first year at Centenary, I had finished up a really good fall and I was more than likely going to be the closer.”
Then, the door shut. A transfer rule unbeknownst to him and others with the team required that he transfer in with 80% of his major credits completed to be eligible to play baseball. Problem was, Hoyt only had roughly 68% wrapped up and would be forced to sit out his entire season. The ordeal even included a school staff member losing their job, while the lanky pitcher was relegated to practice and fell off the radar of Major League scouts.
The kicker came near the end of his season away from the live baseball, when a knee injury lingered into his senior year and limited him to a just few appearances. He’d graduate from Centenary, but he’d go undrafted in the MLB First-Year Player Draft and returned to Boise to re-evaluate his life plan. Back home, the itch to start his postgrad life eventually led him back to San Diego, where he worked for Seaforth Sportfishing.
“I went into that job not knowing a lot, but I was mostly doing maintenance [on sail boats]. There were even times I had to clean the crap off the boat.”
Unpleasant duties to most, he enjoyed everything about the job and quickly gained more responsibility. However, thoughts of baseball never ventured too far from the back of his mind and sooner than later he began the journey to get back into the game.
He circled the independent league, pitching for managers such as Jose Canseco and Tony Phillips. The time allowed him to work on different grips for his fastball, splitter, and slider, the last of which has always been his bread and butter. The success in the circuit led him to latch on with Olmecas de Tabasco of the Mexican League, which is comparable to the Triple-A level in the states. It’s there that he was able to build his velocity from 87 mph into the lows 90s, even hitting as high as 94 mph. Now equipped with big league stuff, the Atlanta Braves saw the potential and signed him to his first professional contract.
“When [the Braves] signed me, I went to Arizona to train with Tony [Phillips] before the season and he got me to really dial in mentally. He reassured me that my stuff was good enough. That confidence boost was important.”
Hoyt finally made his professional debut on April 7, 2013 in a blowout win at High-A Potomac, which was quite the graduation from pitching to his youngest sister in the backyard growing up in Idaho. He’d surrender three runs over 2.1 innings in that appearance, but he stuck and remained with the team through June until he received a callup to Double-A Mississippi. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, he limited opponents to a .147 (17-116) batting average and turned in a 2.48 ERA (9 ER/32.2 IP) over 22 appearances. He’d return to Double-A the following the season, even entering the year as the Braves No. 30 Prospect according to Baseball America, and eventually make his way up to Triple-A after posting a 1.14 ERA (4 ER/31.2 IP) in 28 appearances at Mississippi.
He’d toss four straight scoreless appearances to begin his time with Gwinnett, but like everything in life, learning comes with adversity and Hoyt received a heavy dose on July 31, 2014 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when he surrendered five runs in 2/3 of an inning.
“One bad outing as a reliever can kill your year,” he mentions when thinking back to that forgettable night. “My pitching coach pulled me aside after that game and said ‘Numbers wise, your season is done. You could go scoreless in August and still not get your ERA down. So let’s just work every day.’”
The ERA was gnarly, sitting at 8.20 and jumping off any stat sheet that a fan, coach, or baseball operations department would glance at. But, Hoyt refused to let it define his season and he finished the campaign by allowing only one unearned run over his last seven appearances. Moreover, he ventured to the Dominican this past October to build more confidence in his pitching and succeeded. He went 0-1 with a 2.88 ERA (8 ER/25.0 IP) and a .223 (21-94) opponents’ average in 26 games with Gigantes del Cibao.
In the midst of the Winter League season, another chapter would soon be added to his story. On January 14, 2015, the Atlanta Braves traded him to the Houston Astros. He found out via text from his friend, who offered congratulations and reassurance that the move would be great for him.
“I thought, what the heck is he talking about?” mentions Hoyt who said he had no clue about the move when he read the message. “But about five minutes later [Astros General Manager] Jeff Luhnow called me to let me know I was involved in the trade.”
He impressed Astros management this spring training by surrendering only three unearned runs over 9.2 innings and limiting hitters to a .132 batting average at big league camp. Working mostly one inning each time, he got the idea that the plan was for him to work late innings wherever he ended up.
“I like to think I’m that guy,” he says straight up when asked if the late inning pressure is something he is up for.
His pedigree sure offers the eclectic mash-up of successful big league relievers. So what would a Major League callup mean to the right-hander?
“So much,” says Hoyt as he pauses for a second. “I wouldn’t have taken this route and put so many things on the back burner. I’m looking forward to that day.”
So are we. The more people hear this story, the more backers you’ll have in your corner.
See the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in action at Chukchansi Park Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Tickets are available now at the Chukchansi Park Box Office or online at FresnoGrizzlies.com. For questions, call 559.320.TIXS during normal business hours (Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.). The box office opens at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 25 and Sunday, April 26.