Just like the Glen Perkins interview last week, today is another re-run of a previous interview I've done with a Twins hurler. This time, it was Aussie right-hander Liam Hendriks. Hendriks is a level-headed, home run-depressing, fastball-controlling, Luke Hughes-tripling son of a gun. (Woooo!)
All jokes aside, Hendriks was very thoughtful and accommodating for this interview, which took place during the last series at Target Field in the 2011 season. Sit back and enjoy! Next week I'll have an all-new interview for you all.
Liam Hendriks: Just a regular person who started playing baseball a while back, and was lucky enough to be picked up by the Twins. Now, I’m lucky enough to have gotten an opportunity with the Twins as a September call-up this year, which is a huge honor. Now, with the season winding down, I’m looking forward to getting an offseason in with my girlfriend down in Fort Myers.
BW: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Australia, and playing ball down there? Maybe help set the stage for when you came into your own as a ballplayer?
LH: I started playing tee-ball in Australia at age six. It was mainly because my parents didn’t want to sit around for six-to-seven hours on a Sunday watching me play cricket, so I started playing tee-ball. It went from there. I was always a sporty kid, so I played Australian-rules football a lot, and also played a lot of tee-ball and stuff like that. I was lucky enough to make a few teams here and there, and then got noticed a couple of times. I went to the Australian Academy. It was a two-month program where you stay out in Queensland, and there you play against the best 60 kids in Australia. I went to that two years in a row, and the next January at a national carnival, I was signed by the Twins after having knee surgery.
BW: Help us understand the day-to-day difference between Australia and the United States.
LH: Everything is different, really. To me, it’s just a lot simpler over here, whereas in Australia for instance, not too many people go out to dinner. They always cook at home, and stuff like that. For me, not exactly being a very good cook, it’s a lot harder on me. *laughs* Everything is open a lot later in America, whereas in Australia some things close early. Obviously, Australia has the home touches for me and stuff like that, but I’m starting to get used to America and I’m liking it more. I pretty much live in Fort Myers now, as well.
BW: Before you were a professional ballplayer, did you know much about Luke Hughes?
LH: I knew about him, because I played against him when he was with the Twins and I hadn’t signed yet. I was still a 16-year old kid going up against him. The first time I ever faced him, he hit a triple off me. That was at our main field, where the fence says 400 but it’s actually 430. It one-hopped the fence. *laughs* So, if it had been a regular-sized fence, it would have been a home run. But, he got a triple, and then I ended up striking him out the next couple times.
BW: As an international free agent, you weren’t drafted by the Twins. Take us through international free agency, and what it’s like to be scouted, and to have teams following up with you in an attempt to sign you.
LH: Well, you don’t really hear anything, and there’s no real set date of when you can sign. I signed on my 18th birthday. I had a couple teams interested, and they came to me. My dad was my agent, rather than going out and paying someone. So my dad was my agent, and they called him, and he let me know who offered and how much, and stuff like this. We kind of started a bidding war, which is the good thing about being a free agent signee. You can start a bidding war between teams. I had a couple teams, and at the end of it, it was down to the Twins and the Padres.
The Twins had a little bit better of a deal, and I went with them. I was planning on going with them, unless the Padres blew them out of the water, just because of the fact that they had Australians. I knew a couple of the guys, like James Beresford, who was with the Fort Myers Miracle this year. I came up with him. There were a lot of Australians in the Twins system, so it was definitely a good thing for me.
BW: Let’s take a brief step back. Tell us about the role that your dad played in your career as a baseball player, beyond acting as your agent?
LH: Still to this day, he doesn’t really know too much about baseball. He was a big Australian-rules football guy, as I was growing up. I made a couple of all-Australian teams in football. Coming into it, he just tried to support me and said that I should do what I want to do. He got pretty close with some of the Australian coaches like Jon Deeble, who is a scout for the Red Sox, and another couple of guys who were around the club. He just sort of picked their brains, and knew how other guys signed and what they went through and stuff like this. He didn’t force me on anything, he just supported what my decision was. Obviously it was hard for him, because he knew as soon as I signed I’d be moving to America. But, he did it well. Everyone I’ve spoken to scouts-wise said that he did a great job with me as well, so that’s always good.
BW: OK, so you sign with the Twins. How did the club instruct you on your way up? What did the organization do to cultivate you into the pitcher that you’ve become?
LH: They just said to do things right. I came over as an 18-year old kid; obviously I was still a little bit immature and I had some things going on, but I managed to put together a decent season my first year. The coaching staff loved me because I was one of those guys who didn’t walk anyone; through the entire extended spring training I didn’t walk anyone or give up a run. That was good.
Then of course, I walked the first batter of the GCL season and he scored. *laughs* But no, I was just that guy that who went out there and threw strikes, but didn’t go deep into games every time, because I usually got ahead and then would fall behind, and then get ahead again, and as a result threw a lot of pitches. I threw a lot of strikes, and made the defense work. I think that’s why they started to like me. It was a Twins pitching thing; I didn’t walk too many guys, pitched-to-contact, but had a couple of strikeouts here and there, and just kept the ball down. I think the coaching staff loved me from that point-of-view, and I think I worked really hard in the offseason and during the season in between starts, and stuff like that. I think that’s definitely helped out a lot as well.
BW: That’s a good segue; I wanted to ask you about pounding the strike zone. As an organizational ideology, that is essentially what the Twins are all about. Is that something the Twins had to get to you about, or is that something you basically did from the get-go, and as a result basically fell into the mold?
LH: I pretty much just fit into the mold. Growing up I was a guy that didn’t really throw very hard, so I had to hit my spots. I couldn’t afford to walk people and stuff like this. Then I got hurt a couple times, and every time I seemed to get hurt, I seemed to start throwing harder. I hurt my elbow when I was 14, and that took me out a year from pitching. I had my first knee surgery at 16, and my second at 17. After every one of them, I threw about 3-4 miles per hour harder. So I started out throwing about 81 when I first got hurt, and then I was around 84. By the time I was about to have my second knee surgery, I was around 88.
After that one, I came back around 90. I was able to keep my control as well, which has always helped. As I’ve progressed this year, I’ve started throwing a little bit harder. Like in the minor leagues this year, my average range was 86-94. I touched 94 a couple times, touched 86 a couple times. But usually, I sat around 89-91, and was able to keep the same control. In Triple-A, I was able to hit my spots whenever I wanted to, and I was feeling pretty good down there. Then up here, it’s been a long season, and I’m starting to get a little tired, so the walks have gone up a little bit, but I think I’ve been pitching pretty well.
BW: With the time off associated with each of those injuries, what do you feel made you throw better? Was it the rest for your body, or something mentally, or what do you think?
LH: I don’t think it was necessarily mental. I think it was just the fact that I was still a growing boy, and having time off so everything tightened up a little bit. Then, you usually hear that guys come back throwing harder from rehab after doing all those shoulder exercises, because everything is in tip-top condition. Coming back from that and throwing, and being lucky enough to be around a lot of coaches that would help me out with throwing programs and things like this, that helped. The first time I got hurt, I didn’t start pitching until I was at the Australian Academy. After my first knee surgery, I came back throwing and I was in the West Australian Institute of Sport, which had a baseball program which has since been canceled since baseball is no longer an Olympic sport. But, every time I’ve gotten hurt, I’ve been lucky enough to be around people that I’ve been able to work around and do things with, so I think that has a lot to do with it. Rehab-wise, and stuff like this. I don’t think it’s really mental. I think it’s a lot of rest, rehab, and just development.
BW: You mentioned your fastball range as 86-94. Do you feel your best days are at 94, or somewhere in between? What do you feel dictates where you are at your best as far as velocity-wise, and where is that?
LH: Velocity helps, but for me it’s more deception. If I can deceive someone at like 88-90, then that’s where I’m usually at my best. But every now and then, I’ll be able to get one that I can ramp up a little bit, and it just gets on people a little bit harder. Like my first outing against the White Sox, I had a couple at 93 where everything was the same, but I was just able to put a little bit more on it. I think I got a strikeout on both of them. For me to be my best, it’s usually a lot of it all. You have the 86’s and then you throw the 94’s, and it just keeps people guessing. That’s what I got really good at in the minor leagues this year; not just controlling the fastball, but also controlling the fastball velocity. That way, it’s not always the same velocity, so people can’t time it quite as well.
BW: Having studied your minor league track record, I’ve noted you have really good strikeout rates at pretty much all levels. What do you attribute this to, and what does your repertoire do for you in terms of deceiving opposing hitters?
LH: I’m not sure; I still to this day have no idea how I strike guys out. I think, it’s a bit of surprise. I mean, you’ve got guys 0-2 and they might swing at something in the dirt, or something like that. In the minor leagues, sometimes you can get away with throwing an 0-2 fastball, and they’re not really expecting it. Since I’ve been up here, the strikeout rates have gone down a little bit, but I’ve found out that hitters up here will sit on a certain pitch, and if you don’t throw that one, they’ll think it’s that pitch and swing over the top of it, or they’ll just leave it. If you can get them to swing at the pitches in the dirt early, it puts it in the back of their mind that you could do it again, and they start getting antsy. In the minor leagues, I think I just pounded the zone a lot, and guys tend to miss more pitches down there. I definitely got lucky with a bunch of them.
BW: So you get the first call to the major leagues this year; can you take us through getting the call and what it felt like, and set the scene for your first major league appearance?
LH: It was incredible. We were going on a seven-hour bus trip from Rochester for the last two games of the season. I had just booked my ticket from Rochester to Fort Myers literally about four or five hours earlier. I had packed my bags and brought them on the bus, and chief (Tom Nieto) calls me into his office and says, "Go grab your stuff off the bus. You’re headed to Minnesota tomorrow." That was just incredible. It was awesome; such a great experience, just being able to hear that. As soon as I did it, I got on the phone and called the girlfriend, and booked a flight for her to come up here and stuff like that. Getting into the clubhouse for that first time was awesome, just walking in and seeing everything there.
Seeing some of the guys that I’d played with and idolized as soon as I got to the Twins was just huge. I sat down at my locker, and the clubhouse guys just came over and said, "What do you need?" I didn’t know what to do or what to say. There’s not an instruction manual at all. It’s just an incredible feeling. I was lucky enough to watch the doubleheader before I went out to pitch. I started looking at hitters and what they did, and how to get them out. Warming up in the bullpen for my first start, everything felt good. I was throwing to Rene Rivera, who I’d thrown to a couple times in Triple-A. Then stepping onto that mound, I had to take a step back and look around, and take it all in. I was a little bit nervous for the first couple pitches to Juan Pierre, but after I threw two balls, I started to feel more confident and just breathed and threw a couple strikes, and was able to get him out. I got through a clean first inning with my first strikeout, which was huge for me.
BW: You’re up here with a lot of your Rochester teammates from this season. Did this help your comfort level, or was that pretty much a non-factor?
LH: It definitely did. I knew guys up here, so that definitely helped. I can’t imagine if I was coming up here and didn’t know anyone, because I wasn’t in big league spring training this year. Coming up here and knowing people was huge for me. I could actually sit down and talk to them, figure out what I need to do and what the right way to do things is, and not to aggravate anyone up here, which is a big thing.
BW: In your short time with the Twins, what have you learned - that you didn’t already know - from your experience whether it’s from your teammates, your coaches, or just the game itself?
LH: Things are pretty much the same, everything is just magnified up here. I was having a little bit of trouble with my mechanics in a couple of the starts up here, and everything is magnified. You throw a pitch that you’re pulling off a little bit, and it flies up and away, and they hit the ball off the wall in right field. You can get away with that in Triple-A, because they might not be expecting it and they might miss it. Up here, all your faults are magnified. I’ve really had to concentrate on making sure everything is perfect when I’m throwing. The other thing is doing things the right way, which is a big thing for the Twins. Like, being on time, and showing the fans that you’re here for them as well. Don’t just be one of those self-righteous people who gets out there and doesn’t do anything. Just do things the right way; there’s no other way to explain it.
That’s the Twins way. Being responsible, and not doing anything wrong, so to speak. It’s a very hard thing to explain. Also, being up here you spend a lot more time at the field than you do in the minor leagues. In the minors, you get to the field at 3-4ish for a 4:30 or 5:00 stretch. Here, if you’re here at 2:00 you’re one of the last ones here. That’s still for a 4:10 stretch. You get here, and you sit around, talk to some people, get some food, and get ready for BP and stuff like that.
BW: You gave an interview after pitching to Seattle in the clubhouse, and had mentioned that Alex Liddi got you on a pitch that you had thrown to him a second time in a later at bat. Tell us about that.
LH: I threw him a 3-2 slider which I located low and away in the first at bat, and he ended up striking out swinging. I threw that to him in that at bat in which he homered, and I think if I had thrown it in the exact same spot, I would’ve have been OK. But, it was more of an up and in slider, and he got it. He got it pretty well, and put it in the left field bleachers to tie the game. I was disappointed, because I was up and sniffing the win, but it didn’t happen, and everything happens for a reason. Now I have the whole offseason to work towards getting one (his first ML win) next year hopefully.
BW: The one thing that prompted me to ask you was what was your "welcome to the major leagues" moment, as far as on the field?
LH: I gave up a home run to Alex Rios, and it was like, "You can’t just throw a 3-2 hanging slider to people and expect it to come back." I mean, that’s what I’ve taken from this. You can’t get away with as many pitches up here. So, I need to make sure I work on locating every single pitch every single time, which is a big thing. Another "welcome to the major leagues" moment was how everyone was really ecstatic when I was able to get my first strikeout against the White Sox. I remember running in and Rivera was holding it, and getting it authenticated, and then going in and seeing it waiting for me in my locker. That was huge for me. It’s being framed for me in Fort Myers with a photo from my debut and a ticket stub from that day as well. I’m pretty excited to get that in a couple days when I get home.
BW: What would you like Twins fans to know about you? How can they get to know you better? What else would you like to say?
LH: I don’t really do too much social media stuff. I don’t hang on the computer too much; I tend to say away from that. I like to leave my personal life out of the limelight and stuff like this. I’m going to be friendly to fans at the field, and I’m not going to snub you or anything like that. If you want to come down and say hi, during BP or something like that, and if you’re nice enough, and say your please and thank yous, I’ll flip you up a ball. There’s not too many ways to get a hold of me as such, but I’m always doing interviews and stuff like this, so it’s not like I’m not around at all.
This column originally appeared at Upper Deck Report in November.