Trevor Hildenberger is in the major leagues, has been for a year and a week now. And most of his former University of California teammates, some of them more accomplished at pitching in college than he, are not.
So Hildenberger made a logical suggestion to his friends: Why don’t you give sidearming a try?
“I tried. I showed them the grip, showed them the motion,” Hildenberger said. “Went through [instructions like] ‘Front shoulder here, front hip here.’ But it never really took for those guys. So I stopped suggesting it. I don’t want anyone taking my job anyway.”
Not much danger of that, not these days. After a handful of mediocre outings in April, Hildenberger rebounded with more than a month of unrelenting rally-killing. That streak came to a screeching halt Saturday, when he gave up five runs on four hits and four walks (two intentional) in a third of an inning and took the loss to the Cubs in Chicago.
Before that, he hadn’t given up a run since May 18, a stretch of 16 games in which he had held batters to a .148 average and a .213 slugging average.
“He’s got a way about flustering hitters,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “For a guy without exceptional velocity, he gets some funny swings.”
He does it by using his unorthodox pitching style, a motion he adopted out of equal parts desperation, impulse and whimsy back at Cal. At the seemingly random suggestion of pitching coach Mike Neu, now the Golden Bears’ head coach, Hildenberger, an undistinguished overhand starter who received very little playing time, gave it a try during a bullpen session.
“I wasn’t thinking about the big leagues, or even the minor leagues. I was thinking, ‘I just want to compete, I just want to play on the team. I don’t want to redshirt anymore,’” Hildenberger said. “I was not a fixture in their plans for the future. And nobody ever thought I would be a pro.”
Yet within a couple of years, and still lacking anything resembling velocity, Hildenberger had become the Pac-12 saves leader. He was drafted, albeit not until the 22nd round, by the Twins in 2014, and embarked on a steady climb to the majors, never posting an ERA above 2.50 in the minors.
So why, if a non-prospect can adopt the funky style and let it propel him to the Twins, don’t more pitchers give the motion a try?
“I don’t really know. But it requires a real commitment. It’s not just a gimmick,” Hildenberger said. “If you’re good enough to throw overhand at [a college] level, you’re going to stick with what you’ve always done. If you’re not, you probably give up. It definitely puts some different stresses on your arm and your body.”
That’s a common perception, that shoulder and elbow injuries are more common for sidearmers, though Hildenberger said his motion feels natural, and less stressful than over-the-top. Another common notion says that once hitters get used to the release point, most sidearm pitches will be more hittable than overhand. Hildenberger is refuting that with his success.
To Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, says Hildenberger is a better athlete than he lets on. “Not every pitcher could just adopt a completely different motion and succeed. He’s got a talent for [sidearm delivery], for commanding the [strike] zone and getting movement that makes him unusual,” Falvey said. “It’s a different path to the big leagues, but it’s not a shortcut.”
Developing a slider from that down-under angle was the most difficult step, Hildenberger said. “The slider took the longest. When I first started, I thought about abandoning it altogether, just going fast[ball]/change, because I could throw them relatively close to the strike zone,” he said. “My fastball was only 83-86 [mph]. So I kept throwing the slider, and I got bigger and stronger, and it became a good pitch.”
And he became a good pitcher, more confident and consistent. How would Hildenberger hit a sidearmer?
“I know how I would approach hitting against myself, but I will not give those secrets away,” he said with a laugh. “There is a formula, but I’ll let hitters find it.”
TIGERS: Chris Bosio was ousted as pitching coach for “insensitive comments” and replaced on Ron Gardenhire’s staff by his former Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson. Bosio said he was poking fun at a face made by one of the team’s white players and a Tigers staffer, who is black, thought it was intended for him. “Everyone knows this is not me. I didn’t use any profanity. There was no vulgarity. No racial anything,” Bosio told USA Today, adding he is considering a wrongful termination lawsuit.
ROYALS: Kansas City had five of the first 58 picks in the MLB Draft and the largest bonus pool of any team after losing free agents Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer. The Royals got the University of Florida’s two aces, Brady Singer (18th overall) and Jackson Kowar (33rd), after they fell on draft day. Royals GM Dayton Moore apparently has not closed the door on signing free agent pitcher Luke Heimlich, the Oregon State standout who went undrafted because of revelations of a child molestation conviction when he was 15.
WHITE SOX: Since pitcher Reynaldo Lopez said his team “looked like clowns” a week ago after a 12-0 loss to Cleveland — and several teammates were critical of that comment — Chicago has looked less circuslike. The White Sox were in an eight-game losing streak at the time, but have won four of their past six, including two of three from the Twins.
INDIANS: Cleveland ace Corey Kluber (11-4, 2.54 ERA) had the worst start of his career in an 11-2 loss to St. Louis, giving up six runs in 1.2 innings. Indians manager Terry Francona openly wondered if Kluber was 100 percent, but the veteran righthander insists he’s physically OK. Only Max Scherzer has pitched more innings that Kluber since 2014. The games against the Twins (June 15) and Cards, however, are the only games this season (17 starts) where Kluber has given up more than three runs.
INSIDE THE STATS
Who are the best Twins at extending an at-bat by fouling of pitches with two strikes? The same two guys who have been their best hitters all season (statistics through Thursday):
Two-strike foul balls
105 — Eduardo Escobar
82 — Eddie Rosario
80 — Logan Morrison
75 — Max Kepler
72 — Brian Dozier
And which Twins are caught looking most often?
Called third strikes
20 — Robbie Grossman
16 — Max Kepler
14 — Miguel Sano
14 — Brian Dozier
13 — Ehire Adrianza