During parts of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Hildenberger was one of Minnesota’s most reliable relievers. Paul Molitor relied on him heavily during the team’s run to the 2017 AL Wild Card Game. He didn’t debut until the end of June and he went on to post a 3.21 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP including eight games finished and a save. He seemed like he could be a vital part of a Twins team looking to rebound after multiple rough seasons in a row.
Hildenberger continued to be reliable to start the 2018 campaign as he compiled a 3.33 ERA with a 1.13 ERA in the first half. His month of May was terrific as he limited opponents to three earned runs in 14 innings (1.93 ERA) with 12 strikeouts and two walks. He was continuing to be used in late inning situations while racking up holds on a team trying to get back to the playoffs.
From there, something changed with Mr. Hildenberger.
Reliable No More
There were some bumps in the road during the second half including a four-game stretch during the beginning of August where he allowed nine earned runs. Overall in the second half, he allowed 27 earned runs across 27 innings with a 1.82 WHIP. There were blown leads and blown saves, but Molitor continued to use Hildenberger in late inning situations.
Even with the late-season struggles, Hildenberger was expected to be a bullpen option under new manager Rocco Baldelli. He struggled through the early months of the season as he posted an 8.36 ERA across 19 games (14 innings). Eventually, he ended up being demoted and then spent a couple months on the IL with a flexor mass strain. The injury might have been the result of working through some mechanical changes.
For a pitcher trying to get back to the big leagues, his injury might have been a blessing in disguise.
Hildenberger worked with Rochester’s pitching coach Mike McCarthy to tweak his delivery, because he was flying open too early and the results, as described above, were not great. With his unique side-armed delivery, Hildenberger provides two versions of himself, a very good pitcher with control and deception or a pitcher struggling with command and location.
To return to his role as a very good pitcher, his journey back started in the GCL with a couple appearances against lower level competition as he tried to get a feel back for his pitches. He pitched four innings over three games and allowed one earned run on four hits. From there, he headed back to Rochester where he started to look more like the player he was in 2017.
Since coming off the injured list on August 20, albeit in a small sample size, he didn’t allow any runs and he pitched more than one inning in five of six appearances. He added six strikeouts and issued only one walk. Hildenberger earned a save, a win, and pitched in the late innings of all, but one of his appearances.
Manager Rocco Baldelli told the Pioneer Press, Hildenberger has “been a good major league reliever in the past. It’s in there and we know it’s in there. We just have to find a way to bring it out.”
Minnesota might find a way to bring it out of Hildenberger in September and this could make him a potential wild card for Minnesota’s postseason bullpen.