Hesslink ’17 turns dreams into reality at the MLB draft
Winningest pitcher in Engineers history grew up a Mariners fan and will now pitch in the organization
The 2017 Major League Baseball draft, held on Jun. 12, was historic for MIT, as for the first time in school history, two Engineers were selected. Infielder Austin Filiere ’18 and right-handed pitcher David Hesslink ’17 became the third and fourth Engineers ever to be selected in the MLB draft. Earlier in the year, The Tech caught up with early-round pick Fliere and, later, with late-round pick by the Seattle Mariners, David Hesslink.
The Tech: When did you first realize that baseball was your sport and that's what your passion was?
Hesslink: Baseball has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I started playing at the age of four and haven't stopped yet. I grew up a Navy kid, moving to a different state about every 18 months as my dad was re-stationed. For me, baseball was the glue that held me together through those times growing up. Corny as it may sound, when people ask me where I grew up, I often say on the baseball diamond. I played four years of varsity baseball across three different high schools, and the chance to play NCAA baseball was a big factor in bringing me to MIT. I declared course 2 as a freshman because it wasn't until about the end of my sophomore year that I realized a career in baseball (working on analytics, etc.) was a legitimate possibility.
The Tech: When was the first time you realized that you were probably going to be drafted by an MLB team?
Hesslink: When I came to MIT, I was still entertaining the pipe dream of becoming a professional baseball player. However, I knew I needed to improve to have a legitimate chance at a professional playing career; my fastball tops out around 82 MPH. While I had success as a pitcher at MIT, my fastball velocity never grew, so I came to give up on my dream of being a professional pitcher. I was completely prepared for my playing career to end at the end of MIT's season this year when I got a call from the Seattle Mariners in the fall saying they wanted to draft me and see how far I could go as a professional player.
The Tech: Do you have any specific players, former or current, in the Major Leagues that you look up to or want to model yourself around? And what kind of lessons do you take from them?
Hesslink: As a kid, it was Randy Johnson. He's one of the few professional players to throw left handed and hit right handed, just like me. He was also known for his height, speed, and intimidation factor when he faced opposing hitters. That was something I always aspired to. As I grew older and realized I don't have the physical gifts of Randy Johnson, I began to aspire to pitchers like Tom Glavine, who made a career of throwing very accurately and outwitting opposing hitters.
The Tech: You worked with postdoc Will Cousins on a baseball simulator. How did your experience at MIT with that project prepare you for your prospective future in a front office?
Hesslink: The baseball simulator project was my final project in 2.086, which I took my sophomore fall. The project stemmed from one baseball related question on one problem set, which is ironic when I consider how far that's taken me since. That project led to a baseball UROP with Will the next semester, led eventually to an internship with the Rays, and eventually led to my position with the Mariners. I'm excited to see where I'll go from here. On a personal level, the simulator project was the first time I thought a career in baseball analytics was a feasible option post-MIT. Prior to that, I'd always assumed that world was a holy grail that was well beyond my reach. On a technical level, that project taught me MATLAB and was my first exposure to the power of coding and how it can be applied to baseball.
I think one of the most valuable skill sets coming from MIT is the work ethic everyone has to have to get through the Institute. That “forged by fire” mentality really puts not just me, but all my fellow graduates in a good position to leave MIT and go shape the world as we see fit. I think another element of MIT that helped shaped me was the stability it brought to my life. Living in 10 different zip codes growing up, I never had roots in any one place before I came to MIT. The stability of the places, the community, and the friends I made there, through the baseball team, Simmons Hall, and other venues, helped change my life.
I'll give a shout-out here as well to the GEL program on campus, which helped me learn that everything in life always boils down to a people problem, and life changing, ground breaking work doesn't make any impact unless it can be effectively communicated. The lessons from the program are particularly poignant in baseball; no matter how advanced the analytics get, the game will always be played by people, and the most improvement will come from helping those people to perform; the analytics is just one piece of that puzzle.
The Tech: Given on your experiences in course 2 studies and your work on scientific baseball research, does that affect your pitching in real games in a way that may give you an edge over others? Do you self-scout opponents and use your ability to simulate to your advantage to boost your performance on the field?
Hesslink: I think the edge I gain when pitching is trying to understand my opponent. If I can understand the batter's thought process, I can intentionally pitch differently (i.e., throw a fastball instead of a curve). That reverse-psychology mind game is one of my favorite parts of pitching. I pride myself on being a smart and observant pitcher, looking for minute flaws and tendencies in hitter's swings.
This may sound strange, but I don't think the academic side of the game adds much value to my playing skill. There's an analogy I like to use; the best NASCAR drivers don't know how to engineer a racecar. Similarly, the best NASCAR engineers wouldn't make good drivers. In a similar vein, knowing how to create sophisticated analytics tools isn't as important to being a good player as knowing how to use them. In that sense, I view them as separate skills.
The Tech: We know that balancing your life between varsity sports and an MIT academic life can be tough, and it's a feeling that might not be relatable to a lot of people in the profession you are now in. What is something you have learned through the process that you plan to take out of your time at MIT and the experience of being on the MIT baseball team?
Hesslink: The student-athlete work-life balance at MIT really helped me to develop as a person. When faced with so many things to do and a finite number of hours in the day, I had to learn to prioritize what matters to me in life, what leads me to my own happiness. There's another analogy here that I find useful. Before every start I made on the mound at MIT, I threw the ball as far as I could in warm-ups; that way, for the rest of the day, all the other throws I made during the game felt like they were well within my capabilities. The MIT student-athlete experience is similar; now that I've gone through that juggling act, I feel like anything else I'll come across moving forward will be well within my capabilities.
Also, the MIT baseball coaching staff was a great help in finding that balance. They know how much we all care about the team, and they're astoundingly dedicated, committed, and loyal in helping us be the best possible MIT baseball team we can be. They work incredibly long hours and sacrifice quite a lot in terms of their time, convenience, and personal life to be there for us, and it's pretty safe to say that I wouldn't have made it here without them. Unlike most college coaches, they also understand the rigor of being an MIT student-athlete and truly care about each player as an individual, both on and off the field.
The Tech: If you could, please share with us what's going to transpire in the near future, including what you will be working on this summer. What are your plans for the future as of now and what are some of your ultimate goals as an aspiring executive and ballplayer?
Hesslink: This summer is all about playing ball. I'm living my dream as a minor league baseball player with the AquaSox, and I'm going through everything that entails. We play about 29 games a month, travelling all over the Northwest League competing against other organizations' short season A level affiliates. I've made some great friends out here playing, and playing out here in front of the hometown fans in Everett has been an awesome experience. Being a low-level minor league player isn't all glamour; we work long hours for very little pay and have lots of travel. I'll never forget my first week with the team, whenwe checked out of our hotel before our road game, got to the stadium around 12:00, played a game at 7:00, which went to extra innings, left around 1:00 AM on a bus, and got home around 5:00 AM the next morning, just to be back on the field a few hours later for another game.
The Tech: Is there anything else you would like to tell us or give any shoutouts to people in the MIT community that have meant a little extra to you in your time here?
Hesslink: I just want to say thanks for everyone I met at MIT for making it one heck of a ride. Life has a way of directing us down one very specific path, and the strong support I received from my MIT community (the baseball team & coaches, Simmons Hall, the GEL Program, various professors, etc.) was critical to helping me get to where I am, and I couldn't love it more. I'll always be grateful to the MIT community and look back on my time there with nothing but the fondest of memories.
Hesslink, the winningest pitcher in MIT baseball history, recalled the experience of the draft as “surreal” and emphasized his gratefulness to the MIT community and his family, as he begins his journey in baseball. He states that hey doesn't know exactly where his career will go, but he thinks he'll stay in professional baseball one way or another - whether that's as a pitcher or transitioning into the front office after his playing days expire. This summer, Hesslink played for the Everett AquaSox, the short-season A level affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. He has already matched up against his former MIT teammate, Austin Filiere, in professional baseball. As both of them transition into their paths to the the major leagues, The Tech and the MIT Engineers wish them the best in their future endeavors.