Aaron Northcraft began his professional career in 2009 when he was drafted in the 10th round out of Mater Dei Highschool by the Atlanta Braves. Initially a starting pitcher, his career had been characterized by a struggle to prevent walks despite some early success. By 2014 he had reached Triple-A and was then dealt to the San Diego Padres along with Justin Upton for Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, Max Fried, and Dustin Peterson.
Northcraft started transitioning into a bullpen arm in San Diego, but he struggled to push through Triple-A. In 2016, he was hit by injury, and, as his contract with the San Diego Padres had ended, he entered free agency.
“First, it was a misdiagnosis,” said Northcraft. He had been diagnosed with Tennis Elbow. “Then, I got an MRI and had a partially torn UCL flexor.”
But even after the correct diagnosis, there were still complications. He chose to pursue the more conservative treatment in Platelet-rich plasma (PRP Injection) therapy rather than undergoing surgery. This procedure is commonly used to accelerate healing in injuries to ligaments, muscles, tendons, and joints.
“After the second injection, my hand was numb, and I never fully regained it,” he said. So, in the process of trying to come back from his elbow injury his hand numbness had become a new problem. “I was trying to regain that and get my elbow healthy and it never fully regained, so I had to have my ulnar nerve trans-positioned the following year. That was another 5-6 months recovery.”
With that, Northcraft had missed his second season in a row. In the winter of 2018, Northcraft signed with los Tigres de Aragua, but he was a little different this time.
If you’ve been keeping up with Marlins Spring Training, you’ve probably noted Northcraft’s unorthodox delivery. When he began his professional career, he was throwing in the traditional “over the top” style, but that wasn’t how he always threw.
“When I was a kid, Byung-Hyun Kim was my favorite pitcher. Throughout the years, as I got older, coaches told me I throw harder over the top, and I gradually went over the top.”
So, what did Northcraft change during his 2-year absence?
“I figured, ‘why not be different and do what I did as a kid?’ And I feel more comfortable. I’m very lanky and goofy, so I’m just going to use that to my advantage.”
— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) March 8, 2020
Now reinvented, he succeeded in the Venezuelan winter league and captured the attention of the Seattle Mariners who signed him for the 2019 season. In 27 games for Triple-A Tacoma, Northcraft had a 1.87 ERA through 40 innings pitched; especially impressive production considering a 5.48 ERA was the average in the Pacific Coast League in 2019.
The Marlins took notice and signed him to a minor league deal with an invite to MLB Spring training for the 2020 season. He hasn’t slowed down this spring, as he has yet to give up a run in 4 1/3 innings and has struck out 5 batters.
“I just know, as far as when I faced my own teammates, and the reaction I get from hitters, no one wants to face it,” he said. “It’s not normal to them so they don’t get a good read on it. All I really have to do is throw strikes because I get a lot of ground balls and not a whole lot of hard contact. It’s a pretty good feeling when I just throw strikes and I’m fine. Just sometimes, I’m so lanky the timing can get off…that’s my biggest issue; just throwing strikes.”
With his success in the minor leagues last year and his hot spring, the funky right-hander has thrown himself into serious consideration for an Opening Day spot in the Marlins big league bullpen. It’s been a long time coming for Aaron Northcraft, and his enthusiasm and excitement is palpable.
“It’s a surreal feeling knowing that I’m close. I’m not letting it sink in my head until it’s a reality, but when that time happens, I’ll be turned up a little bit.”