Robbie Ray's debut made us forget a pitcher for whom he was traded, but caused some to remember another southpaw's debut. Jason Beck noted that "only an Ian Kinsler drop and a Dexter Fowler run kept the 22-year-old left-hander from becoming the first Tiger since Andy Van Hekken in 2002 to deliver five or more shutout innings in his Major League debut."
Van Hekken graduated from Holland High School, where my wife and I were high school sweethearts. The local baseball fans were disappointed when he was drafted in 1998 by the Mariners in the 3rd round. Sadness turned to joy when Randy Smith found a phone number without a 713 area code, and traded Brian Hunter for Andy before the 1999 season.
Van Hekken shined in Short-Season Oneonta and arrived in Low-A West Michigan for the 2000 season. The Whitecaps play only 36 miles from Holland, so many locals were excited as he won 16 games in 25 starts. His 1.11 WHIP and 7.2 strikeouts per 9 innings were promising for a 20 year old.
His line for the season includes one appearance in relief. I attended that game, from memory the last of the 2000 season. Andy was trying to set some record with 17 wins, but Dave Mlicki was starting on a rehab assignment. The plan was to get Mlicki four innings of work, then bring in Van Hekken to finish the game and earn the win. Mlicki did not cooperate, as the veteran utterly dominated the kids with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings, allowing 1 hit and 1 walk. He needed to throw a set number of pitches, but was so efficient that Andy did not enter until the seventh inning and instead earned a save.
Van Hekken won 15 and lost 4 in 2001 for Advanced-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, but the record hid a falling walk rate and rising WHIP at each stop up the ladder. He split 2002 between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, finishing with 5 wins and 0 losses for the Mud Hens and a shiny 1.82 ERA. This earned a September promotion to Detroit.
For years I had promised my oldest son, Travis, that I would take him to the game if Van Hekken ever made it to the major leagues. Travis was left handed and wanted to pitch from a young age. The morning of September 3, the promotion was announced. He would start that night. We raced across the state after school in time for the first pitch.
The stands were not crowded, and half of the fans must have been from the Holland area. Though these were not the epically bad Tigers of 2003, they were losing over 100 games and may have promoted the local kid to sell some tickets. Van Hekken did not disappoint the faithful, scattering 8 hits and 2 walks to shutout the Indians. He recorded one lone strikeout, foreshadowing his career.
Andy made 4 more starts to end 2002, all losses for Detroit. He pitched in Erie and Toledo in 2003 and 2004 but never made the trip up I-75 again. I asked Lance Parrish in 2003 if we might see him again, and he had concerns that Andy was battling an arm injury. From 2004 through 2011 Andy bounced around the minors. By 2011 he had accumulated 122 minor league wins.
His 2011 season was promising with a 3.40 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts per 9 innings for Oklahoma City, Houston's Triple-A affiliate. Travis and I saw his team play when we visited the University of Oklahoma, and we thought that he was in the right place to finally get another chance. If nothing else Houston could use a LOOGY down the stretch. But he had a reverse split. Left-handed batters hit .331 off him that year, fueled by a .425 BABIP. He just can't get a break. Instead of a ticket to the major leagues he accepted an invitation to play for the United States in the Pan American Games.
There are many ballplayers with Van Hekken’s talent. Some are called up and get hot at the right time, sticking around for a few seasons. Many never get the chance at all. But in Holland, we are proud that Andy was a Tiger.