Hildenberger Back In Late-Inning Role
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today (photo of Trevor Hildenberger)To say Trevor Hildenberger was a bit of a late-bloomer might be an understatement. He wasn’t drafted out of high school. He didn’t have a ton of offers from Division I schools to sift through. The first three years that he spent at Cal-Berkeley, he hardly got on the mound. In his fourth year, he posted an ERA of 5.32. He had used a red shirt year earlier, so he was there a fifth year. In that 2014 season for the Golden Bears, Hildenberger posted a 2.83 ERA and struck out 48 batters in 47 2/3 innings.
Just two years earlier, a random moment in which he was asked to throw sidearm. It worked. It clicked for him. The Twins scout saw him, and saw enough to push for him to be the team’s 22nd-round draft pick. Already 23, he was sent to the GCL for the remainder of the summer.
Since then, he’s been fantastic. He was the Twins Daily Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year in both 2015 (Cedar Rapids and Ft. Myers) and 2016(Chattanooga and Rochester). He began 2017 back in Rochester. I mean, he hadn’t even received a formal invitation to big league spring training. He continued to pitch well for the Red Wings and at the end of June last year, he was called up.
In his first game, he struck out the first batter he faced. He gave up one hit in a scoreless inning in Cleveland with his family in the stadium. He pitched pretty well, really right from the start. In fact, in late August, there was a stretch where he was called upon by Paul Molitor in six out of seven games. He was used often, and he came through for the Twins nearly each time as the Twins worked their way back into a playoff game. Twins Daily named him the big league club’s Rookie of the Year in 2017.
So, while Hildenberger had struggled in spring training in 2017, both in his limited big league opportunities and down in minor league games, it came as a bit of a surprise when he struggled in spring training this year. In 12 innings, he gave up 19 hits and walked four batters. Opponents hit .352 off of him. As surprising, he gave up five home runs. In his 42 innings for the Twins last year, he gave up just four home runs and just four unintentional walks.
Talking to him in late spring training, maybe a week before the stats started to matter, Hildenberger seemed outwardly unworried. He said all the right things. Spring training is for working on things in an attempt to be ready for the season. Process over results.
The struggles continued into the first month of the Twins season. In his first 11 appearances of the season, he gave up six earned runs on 12 hits and four walks. He posted a 4.91 ERA, but that told only part of the story. He was brought into games with a combined 12 runners on base. Nine of them scored. And, the home runs continued. He gave up three homers in those 11 innings.
And then on April 30th, he worked two perfect innings. Really, since that outing, Hildenberger has pitched in 30 games. He’s given up just eight total runs, and five of those came in his one really bad outing during the rough weekend for the Twins against the Cubs. He’s given up just two homers over 33 innings. Also since that time, just two of seven inherited runners have scored.
That one bad game… well, over his past 21 outings, that is the only game in which he’s allowed runs.
Needless to say, Hildenberger has earned his opportunity to pitch as the team’s top set-up man. He hasn’t pitched in a sixth inning since May 18. Most of the time, he has worked one inning, but there have been a few times he has come in for the final out of the seventh and finished up the eighth inning too.
So what has worked? From this observer’s point of view, there have been a couple of keys to Hildenberger’s success.
#1 - The Changeup - Hildenberger’s changeup is devastating. How many times in the last month have we seen hitters (left-handed or right-handed) almost fall to a knee swinging at a changeup that never quite gets there. He’s getting swings and misses, and he is inducing weak contact. If you look at FanGraphs Prospect report on him, it says that he has a 55 changeup with the potential for a 60 changeup. Right now, Hildenberger’s changeup is about as close to an 80 as you can get. He is throwing the changeup more (and better) over the last month or two than earlier in the season, and he’s got the feel for it. He’s throwing it about 36% of the time.
#2 - The Slider - While he is throwing the changeup about the same amount as last year, he has throwing many more sliders in 2018 than he has in 2017. Last year, he threw that pitch 14% of the time, and this year, he’s throwing it 25% of the time. While his changeup drops down and in on a right handed batter, his slider darts down and away from a right-hander. The added sliders have meant that he is throwing fewer fastballs (down to 38% from 51%, per FanGraphs). More pitches that dart down to or below the knees mean swings and misses and weak contact, usually on the ground.
#3 - Control and Command - While the pitches have been better, in terms of movement, they’ve also been much more crisp in terms of location. While he’s walked nine batters over those 33 strong innings, five of them have been intentional. But not only is he not issuing walks, his command of the strike zone is so much better. He isn’t missing over the middle of the plate. He’s missing below the knees or just off the outside corner. Those home run balls, for the most part, were on mistake pitches hanging over the middle of the plate.
While there are likely some mechanical things that have helped Hildenberger get back to his late 2017 form, or the form he displayed in the minor leagues in 2015 and 2016, simply throwing quality pitches in the right (and intended) locations is certainly a key.
It’s fun to watch Hildenberger jogging in from the bullpen, knowing that he’s in his best form, and he’s been remarkably reliable.
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