Have you hear about Twins prospect Trevor Hildenberger? He’s a side-arm reliever who has pitched 30.2 innings this year for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. In that time he’s posted a 2.05 ERA, along with 25 strikeouts and only eight walks. That’s pretty darn good!
So good, in fact, the Twins just called him up to the Minnesota Twins today.
I was very luckily enough to get the chance to talk to Hildenberger just a day or two ago, before his big call-up. Below is our full interview.
Twinkie Town: Thank you for talking to me today.
Trevor Hildenberger: Yes, of course!
TT: I’ll just start off by asking how you’ve been feeling this season? How have things been going from your perspective?
Hildenberger: I feel good. I know I started a little slow this year in April—I don’t know if my mechanics weren’t there, or if just didn’t have a feel or command I had last year. Things started real slow, but I feel like I’ve corrected the ship and I’ve felt a lot better the past, I don’t know, six or seven weeks.
TT: Well yeah, it seems like that just from watching you from afar.
Hildenberger: I feel like I’m in a pretty good rhythm and groove and I’m just trying to keep that going.
TT: The second question I have is that—I know you have a little bit of a funky delivery, and I was wondering where that came from. How did it develop? Did you always pitch like that?
Hildenberger: It started in college in 2012. I did not always throw like that. I used to throw over the top, high three quarters—pretty much a regular delivery. The new delivery actually started at the end of my third year at Cal. I pitched five years there. At the end of my third year, I was getting ready to throw a bullpen the last week of the season and the guy right ahead of me had lost all his practice jerseys, so he was wearing a different number. My pitching coach remarked, “Hey, where is your practice jersey? You’re wearing number 37. When I picture number 37, I picture a big corner outfielder. A power hitter.”
So I asked my coach, “Well what do you picture when you see number 26?” Because I wore number 26. He said, “Well, there’s a side-arm pitcher from Washington who wore number 26, and a side arm pitcher for UCLA... have you ever thrown side arm?” I said no, and he asked me, “Well, why don’t you try it right now? In this bullpen.” So I dropped down, just kind of started kind of swinging it side arm, like I was a shortstop turning a double play or something. And it felt good! I was pretty close to the strike-zone. So my coach was like, “Alright, that’s how you throw now.”
I had only thrown twelve innings in three years [in college], so I wasn’t very competitive. But if you can find a way to throw strikes and find a secondary pitch in there, you’re immediately more competitive and will get innings. At that point I was desperate to get innings so I said, yeah.
TT: That’s a pretty interesting story. So it was all because of the number you were wearing?
Hildenberger: Yeah. All because one of my bonehead teammate lost all his practice jerseys.
TT: Hah! Another question, sort of about that—as you moved on, using that delivery, how has that affected how coaches approach you? Or the sort of insight or direction you receive from them? Or do you even know?
Hildenberger: I know a little bit, I think. My fourth and fifth years in college, I pitched a lot in the middle of innings. I came in to get ground balls and get double plays and stuff. In my fifth year I don’t think it was as dramatic as a normal release pitcher and he started to use my more as a normal relief pitcher.
I don’t know, though. I think sometimes mechanically they try to stay away from me. They aren’t used to seeing a guy who just takes a really short stride and is swinging it from the side. It’s slightly different mechanics and the finish is different. They often let me do my own thing, mechanically. But other than that, as a pitcher, they give me a lot of mental direction and help me out a lot.
TT: Did anyone in the Twins organization try to change you, or did they just try to encourage more of what you’re already doing?
Hildenberger: Everyone at the Twins has been welcoming of my different arm slot. They’ve all just been trying to help me increase my capabilities. Ivan Arteaga, the pitching coach with Chattanooga right now—he was with Ft. Myers in 2015 when I was there—he actually suggested that I start throwing some pitches from over the top. He told me to never loose anything from the side, but keep throwing over the top as another weapon. If I throw over the top, I throw another two or three MPH harder. It is kind of a surprise pitch because hitters get a different look, and it’s harder because I get on them a little bit quicker. So he asked me to expand my belt, and that’s actually still a weapon I use today.
TT: I was going to ask that—I mean, if you ever did still throw over the top.
Hildenberger: I do. I pick-off over the top and throw to all the other bases over the top, so I never really lost a feel for that. As I’ve gotten older and stronger, I’ve kind of picked up a couple ticks. I sort of use them as a surprise pitch to get the back of swings.
TT: Does pitching over the top still feel more natural to you? Or are you just used to the rhythm of throwing to the side?
Hildenberger: Both of them feel pretty fine. The more natural I would say now is side-arm, at this point. But over the top isn’t foreign or anything.
TT: You mentioned your coach Ivan Arteaga there in Ft. Myers, and this is sort of a related question, but I was wondering if you had any coaches or maybe teammates in the Twins organization who have been particularly helpful?
Hildenberger: Henry Bonilla, who was in Cedar Rapids while I was there and now he’s in Ft. Myers, he really helped me mechanically, finding a delivery that I could repeat over and over and over again. He helped me learn my body movement so I knew when something was out of sync and I was throwing poorly I knew why and I could correct that. He also really helped me mentally take the next step of how to approach great hitters, better hitter, rough hitting hitters that I needed to get out, and just be a smarter pitcher. But really, all the coaches help me.
TT: How much do you think physically versus mentally your approach to the game has been? Do you think they are equal? Has one become more important than the other?
Hildenberger: I think at this point it’s more mental. Once you get to this level at Triple-A, I think people stop competing against themselves physically. What I mean by that is that everyone has different mechanics. Everyone can throw a slider for a strike. Everyone has a good swing, can see the ball well. Everyone’s basics are great. That’s why you’re here. So it’s just about mentally being able to focus and execute.
You need to execute, and repeat your delivery. I think that now it is more of a mental battle—but obviously, to be great, you have to take care of your body and still make sure you’re strong and stable and all that. But yeah—it’s mostly mental.
TT: Obviously you’re aware the Twins got a whole new front office in the past year. I was wondering if, from your vantage point, if you’ve notice any changes or if things have felt like business as usual?
Hildenberger: I try to stay the same. I’ve had a moderate amount of success in my career, so I just try to focus on that. But I know that people are excited. People are excited about the team and the fact we’re having a winning season in Minnesota right now. That helps a lot. Not everyone is sent down or trying to fix something.
TT: That was actually another related question I and my writers had. if the frequent movement between Triple-A and the big leagues has affected the morale of the club in Rochester in any way?
Hildenberger: There’s been a lot of movement so far, and the Rochester locker room has seen their fair share of guys moving in and out. I think it helps the morale, though, to me honest. When you see your friends and buddies make it to the big leagues and then have success, and then come back and say it’s not THAT different, here’s what I need to work on. It makes it feel like you’re... closer. Sometimes you feel like the big leagues are really far away, whether you’ve been or not. But... it makes it feel like you can contribute on that level, and the next time you’re having success that helps you.
I also want to say, the one thing I notice that’s different about this new front office is that we have a much bigger focus on mindset. Healthy mindset, aggressive mindset, and that whole side of that discussion.
TT: That is very interesting to hear. Moving on, do see yourself as the type of pitcher who will go multiple inning, or maybe just one?
Hildenberger: I try to do whatever is asked. I want to be versatile. I’m not just a long guy and I’m not just a one-inning guy. I want to be able to play at any time.
TT: Sounds like with your experience in college that would make sense. Also with all this mindset talk, do you have a different mindset when you are closing games versus other appearances?
Hildenberger: Not for me. I think it’s still be aggressive, make this guy earn it, and get him out. Get him out. I mean, when you’re pitching the goal is to get them out so... pretty much the same for me.
TT: So background on you, and who you are as a person—because a lot of people don’t know a lot about you younger guys—where are you from? Are you from California originally?
Hildenberger: Yes. I was born and raised in San Jose, California.
TT: How did you get into baseball originally? Just started playing? Your family? Is there a story there?
Hildenberger: From playing little league early as a kid. My Dad played baseball a little bit in high school—he went to a small high school. But I never had any family members who played college or professional baseball before. I played little league as early as I can remember.
But I can remember not wanting to play baseball at ages nine or ten. My Mom convinced me to go to tryouts, just convinced me. So I would go to tryouts and have one or two days and I’d remember how much fun baseball was and I’d want to play again. That happened like two or three years in a row. So I am very thankful to my Mom for convincing me to keep playing!
TT: Yeah! No kidding! Once you did that, did you do so well it convinced you to keep playing or...?
Hildenberger: I was pretty average when I was a kid. Maybe a little bit above average? I wasn’t like a stand-out star. But I grew really tall in high school really early, so in my sophomore year I pitched really hard and so I got the scholarship to Cal. Like I said, I went to Cal and didn’t really pitch much for the first three years.
Our baseball program got cut after my sophomore year. I thought my career was over. I was just going to stay at Cal and finish my degree, but then they raised enough money to bring the program back. I kept playing, switched to side-arm, and then after that fourth year in college my scholarship was up. I was just going to take one summer class and then graduate, but my coach called and asked if I wanted to play a fifth year, because I red-shirted my sophomore year. So I said sure, yeah, why not? One of the incoming freshmen who had a full scholarship had gotten drafted and signed so I came back for a fifth year, was healthier, and was able to get drafted by the Twins.
TT: When you were little did you watch baseball? Did you have a favorite team or a favorite player?
Hildenberger: I was a huge Giants fan. Obsessively. I mean, Barry Bonds...
TT: Yeah, I actually loved where you’re from and had “BARRY BONDS?” written here underneath my question.
TT: One of my writers wanted me to ask, “How am I supposed to create you in MLB: The Show if the player editor only allows eleven letters?”
Hildenberger: Is that right? Only eleven letters? That’s too bad. I guess you could shorten it to “Hildy”. The guys call me “Hildy” in the clubhouse.
TT: What do you think was your hardest time making your way through the minors? Or did you ever have a hardest time? 20:05
Hildenberger: There have been ups and downs. When I was drafted, as I said, I had no family who had played professional baseball. I didn’t understand how many guys there are in an organization and how long the road is... and how GOOD everyone is. Everybody is as good or better than you.
I was 23 and I went to the GCL—the lowest level of professional baseball, at 23 years old. We played day games, every day. At noon. In Florida. In July. 100 degrees and 100% humidity. We still practiced full BP before every game. There’s no scoreboards. There’s no fans. You play on backfields everyday. So it wasn’t like this glorious, travel the country and see places that I thought I was getting into. It was kind of a grind, that first half-season. That was KIND OF a grind. But everything after that has been kind of a little bit better.
TT: Some of our writers were wondering how you feel about stats—like advanced statistics. Do you look at them? Use them? Or do you not even pay attention?
Hildenberger: Well yeah, I pay attention to my stats. I think minor leaguers are judged on their stats. I’ve started to learn a little bit about advanced stats, but I really don’t know too much about it. But I know I pitch the end of the game, and it affects people’s careers, so I want to learn what they’re doing.
TT: But I’m sure the day-to-day is more about the physical and mental parts.
Hildenberger: Yeah. You just have to compete. I try not to look at stats when I’m at the field.
TT: Sound good. Here’s another question one from our writing staff: Do you throw up in the bullpen before you pitch and how would you react to a teammate who did that?
Hildenberger: I got to say... if I had a teammate who did that I would be concerned.
TT: Well apparently Ryan O’Rourke does that on the regular, but he had Tommy John surgery so he’s on the DL this year.
Hildenberger: Huh. He was never a teammate of mine.
TT: I have one more question, which is very important—is an Oreo sandwich?
Hildenberger: Um... I... say no.
TT: I agree with you on that. But apparently your teammate Daniel Palka has some other ideas about Oreos.
Hildenberger: That an Oreo is a sandwich?
TT: Yes. I asked him if he thought a hot dog was a sandwich and that’s what he came back with.
TT: Anyways, that’s all I have. Thank you very much for your time. Hopefully we see you soon at Target Field.
Hildenberger: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you for you time as well.
Of course, the news is that just today Hildenberger will be officially called up and joining the Twins in Cleveland to face the Indians. Obviously whenever he does pitch for the Twins it will be his Major League debut.
Good luck, Trevor!