Guy, the varsity coach at Terry Sanford High in Fayetteville, N.C., asked the coach next to him if the kid had picked a college. Madison Bumgarner, as it turned out, was a sophomore committed to the University of North Carolina, though he’d never make it to campus. And after watching him pitch, Guy stored Bumgarner’s unconventional, cross-body delivery in the back of his head, a small tidbit that hardly mattered for another decade — until a skinny freshman named DJ Herz came along and threw a similar way.
“I’m not saying DJ is Madison Bumgarner, because DJ is his own dude,” Guy said of Herz, who joined the Washington Nationals in August as one of the two players netted from the Chicago Cubs for Jeimer Candelario. “But when I first saw DJ pitch, that’s who I compared him to, delivery-wise. Not so much the leg kick, but the cross-body motion.
“With Bumgarner, I remembered a lot of people being like: ‘The cross-body is going to tear his arm up, his arm is going to be fried.’ But it was part of his deception and he repeated it the same every time. So with DJ, I didn’t touch his mechanics. What you see now, it’s all natural, all DJ, not a ton has changed.”
When the Nationals evaluated Herz, 22, his crossfire delivery and a strong change-up were two of the main selling points. He doesn’t have an overpowering four-seam fastball, its velocity often hovering between 90 and 94 mph. Metrically, the pitch doesn’t have remarkable spin rates or induced vertical break. But because of the vertical approach angle of his pitches — a product of his unique arm slot — Herz can use his fastball as a swing-and-miss pitch, helping him to 12.94 strikeouts per nine innings in 2023.
Since the Nationals acquired him, Herz has a 2.76 ERA in 29⅓ innings for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. In four of his seven starts entering Friday, he’d pitched at least four innings and allowed zero runs. Before the season, the Cubs, who drafted Herz in the eighth round in 2019, had him add a slider that he regularly features to lefties. His curveball is an ongoing project, something he wants to really hammer over the coming winter. An intriguing foundation is there.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve always been a guy who strikes a lot of hitters out,” Herz said. “I can’t always explain it, since I don’t have that dominant, high-90s velo. But I do think hitters aren’t used to my kind of delivery. It feels like that has to be a factor.”
How does Joel Hanrahan, the Senators’ pitching coach, explain it?
“Some of it has to be the crossfire delivery that he’s got going,” he said. “Maybe the angle that it’s coming out. It’s not a traditional over the top and it’s not side arm, so maybe the arm slot that goes with the crossfire gives it a little more deception. Plus his fastball has real life to it.”
This started when Herz was a toddler, when in his dad, John, remembers him playing with any ball he could find, never the typical baby toys. So when Herz made it to Terry Sanford, he was a three-sport athlete for four years, playing quarterback, basketball and baseball. He could pitch and hit, too, with a pro scout once telling John that Herz was one of the top three batters in the state. But until he gained about 10 mph in velocity between his freshman and junior seasons, Herz thought basketball was his calling.
Looking back, he feels his focus on basketball may have inadvertently fueled his baseball dreams. He says he practiced shooting more than pitching or throwing a football. He never went to a pitching guru. Because of that, only Guy and Herz’s dad were in position to tinker with the delivery that would make him special.
“And I guess I got lucky with that one,” Guy cracked. “Just let DJ be DJ.”
“My dad and I will joke that I maybe don’t make it this far if we sought a lot of outside coaching,” Herz said. “I mean who knows, but it has certainly gone well to this point.”
While Herz dissected his change-up — which he wants to add spin to, aiming for the same depth and fade as Devin Williams’s famous “Airbender” — he called it the “pitch that changed his whole career.” And while Hanrahan is certainly impressed by it, he pinpointed Herz’s fastball as the pitch that makes everything work.
One trap of the crossfire delivery: It can make it hard to stay on line to the plate. To address that, the Cubs refined Herz’s motion a bit, telling him that if it was a nine out of 10 on the “unique scale,” he should dial it down to a six or seven. They also gave him drills he brought with him to Harrisburg. That should all bode well for Herz as he keeps climbing with Washington, quite possibly starting next year with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
The Nationals targeted him in the trade because they viewed him as a potential major league starter. So far, then, so good.
“You don’t see too many guys who can just go out there and throw some fastballs by people these days,” Hanrahan said. “A handful of times I’ve seen when he gets in trouble, he runs that fastball and it’s just like: Here are six fastballs and he strikes two guys out and he’s out of the jam. It’s a good quality to have and he’s got it. He’s exciting.”