In the majors this season, Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks screamed at himself in an Anaheim dugout, talked in a Pittsburgh clubhouse about how he “needed to get angry at myself,” and gave up at least one home run in every other city he pitched except Detroit.
In the minors, Hendriks has cruised through lineups all over the Northeast, striking out almost as many batters as he’s put on base. The home runs haven’t come, and Hendriks steadily has gained command over his fastball. In his statistics, and in the impressions of those who have watched him pitch, he’s looked more like a major league pitcher at Triple-A Rochester than he has with the Twins.
The 23-year-old is in limbo, in a sense, pitching too well for the minors but still struggling to turn a dominant Triple-A season into big-league success. He qualified for the International League leader board this week — he leads the league with a 1.99 earned-run average — and it seems likely he’ll get his third shot at the major leagues this year as a September call-up. There are spots open in the Twins’ 2013 rotation, and Hendriks stands to have a shot at one of them.
He just needs to make the transition — and he knows the largest distance he still has to cover is in his mind.
“With the Twins, the way they’ve been doing this year, they’ve been giving guys opportunities,” he said. “If you take advantage of your opportunities, you have a chance to move up. But it’s always in the back of your head that you have a chance to be sent down. That didn’t really play into it while I was up (in the majors), but once I came back down, I’d go, ‘Yeah, I guess I was pressing.’ “
Hendriks said the pressure of trying to get major league hitters out made him change the way he pitched. He would aim his fastball, rather than powering it down in the strike zone, and in eight major league starts this year, he threw breaking balls 26 percent of the time, which helped lead to the 10 home runs he allowed in those starts.
Between starts, the Perth, Australia, native would go to the Twins’ video database, find a recording of his previous start and nitpick his delivery. Like a golfer who has read one too many articles about how to fix a slice, Hendriks would get on the mound thinking about three or four different things he needed to change, and his muddled delivery made things that much easier for hitters; right-handers are hitting .398 off him in the majors this year.
The opponents aren’t nearly as skilled at Triple-A, but that doesn’t go far enough to explain why Hendriks has dominated at Rochester, and why the Twins are giving him so much time to work on things while calling up other pitchers.
In the minors, Hendriks has gone to work with much less on his mind — for one thing, there’s no video database to help him fuss over his delivery. He thinks he’s keeping a looser grip on his slider, rather than squeezing it and snapping it off like a curveball, and the change has helped the pitch run away from right-handers. They’re batting just .209 off Hendriks at Rochester.
And when he’s on the mound, he’s worked with stunning consistency. Hendriks has worked at least seven innings in six of his eight outings at Rochester since the Twins sent him back down in early July, and he’s given up one run in his past 21 innings.
“He’s a machine,” Red Wings pitching coach Bobby Cuellar said. “He doesn’t get excited. A lot of how you handle this game is how you handle your emotions.”
But the question remains whether Hendriks, whom the Twins signed as a free agent in 2007, will be able to transfer that approach to the majors.
Hendriks knows he’ll have an easier time relaxing once he’s had some success in the majors, but he’s still working to get to that point. His next chance could be coming soon, and he’s working to make sure he’s ready.
“We try, as much as you can, to put him in situations where it’s like he is pitching in the big leagues and does things right,” Cuellar said. “But you can never, ever simulate what happens in the big leagues down here.”
Said Hendriks: “I definitely think I have some stuff to prove. I’ve done well here, never quite translated into the major league level. I need to prove it does work up there. That’s what the Twins signed me for.”
Follow Ben Goessling at twitter.com/BenGoesslingPP.