The best bet in baseball isn’t always the first-round pick.
Sometimes, it takes a person who’s done the grunt work – like “cleaning the crap off boats” – to survive and flourish amid baseball’s daily grind and grueling season.
Someone like Fresno Grizzlies closer James Hoyt.
Once out of the game and scrubbing boats for a living, Hoyt rediscovered his passion for baseball and worked his way through a series of independent-league teams en route to joining the affiliated minor-league circuit.
Five years since Hoyt figured he’d never play pro baseball again, the long shot from Centenary College of Louisiana appears to be on the brink of making it big.
“His story is awesome,” Grizzlies catcher Tyler Heineman said. “He’s had to work hard everywhere he’s been, played at some of the lowest levels to get noticed.
“It’s easy to root for guys like him. You respect what he’s done. He’s unbelievable.”
Hoyt, 29, is dominating Triple-A hitters for the second consecutive season, sporting a 2.03 ERA with 22 strikeouts to five walks in 13 1/3 innings and leading the Pacific Coast League with seven saves. That’s placed the right-hander seemingly near the front of the line to earning a promotion to the majors.
His story is awesome. He’s had to work hard everywhere he’s been, played at some of the lowest levels to get noticed.
Fresno Grizzlies catcher Tyler Heineman on closer James Hoyt
“I don’t think it’s a question if he’s going to pitch in the big leagues – it’s when,” Grizzlies pitching coach Dyar Miller said.
A carefree spirit, Hoyt never focused solely on baseball prior to going pro.
He preferred to play basketball in high school.
His hitting coach, former big-league first baseman Bill Buckner, eventually persuaded Hoyt to concentrate more on baseball by his senior year.
Buckner then helped Hoyt continue his career at Palomar College prior to transferring to Centenary, then one of the smallest Division I programs that since has dropped to D-III.
Injured during parts of his senior year at Centenary, Hoyt went undrafted – as expected for a pitcher with an 18.82 ERA and almost twice as many walks as strikeouts.
“It was terrible,” Hoyt said. “I’m not on the map. No scouts are talking to me. Why would they?
“I’m thinking: I’m going to finish my degree, head back to San Diego, join the real world. Baseball was done. I was done.”
Life in the real world
Hoyt’s post-baseball career began with a rental-boat company out of Mission Beach.
His first responsibility: clean the boats.
I’m just cleaning the crap off boats. But I loved it.
Fresno Grizzlies closer James Hoyt on his last job prior to pursuing a baseball career
“All the junk that collects on the sides, I’m scrubbing it,” Hoyt said. “Got to work your way up, right? So I’m just cleaning the crap off boats.
“But I loved it. I lived in downtown San Diego. Boat-rental job was just the beginning. It was great.”
Hoyt spent two years gaining “real-world” experience before he got pulled back into baseball.
A friend coaching at a nearby high school asked Hoyt to help his pitchers.
Hoyt obliged. But he realized he wanted to do more than coach.
Hoyt still wanted to play.
But how does an undrafted pitcher who hasn’t played in two years kick-start a pro career?
In Hoyt’s case, he paid $100.
It went toward a tryout fee to potentially join an independent league.
One of 70 pitchers trying out, Hoyt caught the attention of Jose Canseco.
“What’s your deal? What are you doing here,” Hoyt recalled Canseco asking.
Hoyt soon signed with the Yuma Scorpions, with Canseco serving as his manager.
In Arizona, Hoyt received additional tutelage as fellow Yuma teammate and 18-year major-league veteran Tony Phillips, then 52 years old, took interest in the lanky reliever.
“Why aren’t you playing in the minors,” Hoyt recalled Phillips asking.
The two trained together for the next four months.
By the following season, however, the Yuma franchise folded.
Unsure what to do, Hoyt promised himself to play baseball for one more season, then reassess if he should give it up for good.
Finding baseball work
Hoyt moved to Texas to play for the Edinburg Roadrunners of another independent league. That led to the Witchita Wingnuts of a higher-level independent league purchasing his contract.
Then a Mexican League team, the Olmecas de Tabasco, bought Hoyt’s contract.
Hoyt never hesitated at any of the opportunities, motivated by the excitement, his baseball drive and money.
A few years before he became the Fresno Grizzlies closer, James Hoyt worked and trained with former major leaguers Jose Canseco and Tony Phillips while in the independent league.
“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.”
An Atlanta Braves scout eventually noticed Hoyt pitching in Mexico and signed him to a minor-league deal.
Finally, after four teams and two seasons, Hoyt was in affiliated minor-league baseball.
Hoyt landed with the Astros organization near the start of last season, included in a trade that centered around Evan Gattis joining the Houston club.
Dominant in Triple A
Hoyt is proving to be more than just a throw-in piece.
With a wipeout slider and a recently developed splitter, Hoyt has developed into one of the most reliable, if not dominant, relievers in the minors. He got the final out in both the Grizzlies’ Pacific Coast League title game and Triple-A national championship last season.
Hoyt is not on the Astros’ 40-man roster, so Houston would have to make an additional player move if the parent club elected to promote him.
For the time being, the Grizzlies are trying to get Hoyt used to pitching multiple innings in high-leverage situations.
3.39 Fresno closer James Hoyt’s ERA over five seasons of affiliated minor league baseball
“A guy rarely goes from a Triple-A closer to a big-league closer,” Miller said. “They usually are a closer at Triple A then a setup guy. We’re trying to get him multiple innings. So we can get him to throw two, maybe three innings. (The Astros) have two closers up there right now.
“We’re hoping to stretch him out, and he can help bridge that gap.”
Hoyt knows better than to get caught up wondering whether he’ll get called up.
If anything, his past has shown what he needs to do.
Just keep working, keep scrubbing, dealing with the “crap,” and something good will emerge.
James Hoyt file
- Age: 29
- Height/Weight: 6-6, 230
- Throws: Right
- Drafted: Undrafted
- College: Centenary College
- Hometown: Boise, Idaho
- Joined Astros organization: Part of Houston’s trade with the Atlanta Braves in 2015 that brought power hitter Evan Gattis to the Astros
- 2016 stats: 0-2, 2.03 ERA, 7 saves, 22 strikeouts, 5 walks, .159 batting average allowed, 13.1 innings
- 2015 stats: 0-1, 3.49 ERA, 9 saves, 66 strikeouts, 11 walks, .246 batting average allowed, 49 innings