Position: LHP Height: 6-3 Weight: 170 Born: 10/5/82 Bats: Right Throws: Left
Mike Hinckley was drafted by the Expos in the third round of the 2001 draft, out of high school in Moore, Oklahoma. At the time, he was the prototype "projectable lefty:" tall, thin, with a decent fastball and a chance for it to get faster. His pro career got off to a rough start with a 5.24 ERA in rookie ball, but he turned things around quickly in the 2002 New York-Penn League, posting a 1.37 ERA and showing fine command. In '03 he was one of the more impressive lefties at the low A-ball level, although he didn't receive much media attention. That changed in '04, when he finished the season pitching very well in Double-A. Hinckley is now one of the top southpaw prospects in the game, giving Washington Nationals fans something fun to look forward to.
Hinckley has filled out a bit since high school, with strong legs in particular. His biggest improvement since those days is more consistent mechanics, which have enabled him to sharpen his command. His fastball can hit 94 mph, although he pitches consistently in the 89-92 range. The pitch has excellent sinking movement, and he doesn't give up many home runs as a result. His second pitch is a very fine curveball, which he's improved each year. In '04, he developed a better changeup to go with the fastball and curve, although the change is still his weakest pitch and needs further refinement. Hinckley is emotionally mature, intelligent, highly competitive, and not afraid to pitch inside when needed. His biggest weakness right now remains the changeup, which is still inconsistent and will have to be improved before he reaches the majors.
Statistically, Hinckley has gotten better each year, which is always a good sign. His K/BB ratios have always been above-average, and his strikeout rate has improved a bit each season. The big improvement in '04 was in his H/IP ratio. This can be a flukey stat and is dependent at least in part on good defensive support, but the fact that it remained strong at two levels is a positive marker of genuine improvement. He doesn't give up many homers, another good sign and statistical confirmation of the scouting reports about his sinking fastball. His K/IP, while above average at +7 percent compared to the Eastern League, is not excellent, and could be a warning that he still has some adjustments to make.
Hinckley has had no major health concerns. He is pitch-efficient and has clean mechanics, which should help him stay healthy. No young pitcher comes with a "no shredded shoulder/blown elbow" guarantee, of course, but there is no evidence that Hinckley's injury risk is higher than normal.
What to expect
If Hinckley pitched in the Yankees or Dodgers farm system, or even the Cubs or Braves, he'd get a lot more attention. As it is, attention or not, he is one of the best southpaw prospects in the game. He's not perfect, still needing to improve his changeup, and will need Triple-A time to put the finishing touches on his game. But if he remains healthy, he should see the majors sometime in 2005, then challenge for a Nationals rotation spot in 2006.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.