The following story was originally published in January, in my Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2012
. The day after the 2011 season ended, I named the SethSpeaks.net Twins Minor League Player of the Year (Brian Dozier
), the Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year (Liam Hendriks
) and the Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year (Andrew Albers
). For my book, I was fortunate to get in contact with all three of those players and interviewed each of them for a story.
Over the weekend, it became official that Liam Hendriks had made the Twins Opening Day starter. He will make his 2012 debut on Sunday against the Orioles. I thought it would be fun, and timely, to post the Liam Hendriks article here. (If you want to read the Dozier and/or Albers article, and read over 160 player profiles of Twins minor leaguers and much more, you can order a paperback book here
, or you can get an electronic version here
Here is the story on Hendriks:
For the second straight year, Liam Hendriks was the choice for the SethSpeaks.net Pitcher of the Year award. And for his efforts, he received a September call-up to the Twins. “Without a doubt, it was fantastic. I mean, that’s the reason that I came over to America. I’m living the dream at the moment.”
The Twins went to Australia and signed Hendriks in February of 2007. After signing, he came to the States and pitched for the GCL Twins. He made ten starts and went 4-2 with a 2.05 ERA. In 44 innings, he walked 11 and struck out 52.
However, he had to miss the entire 2008 season due to injury. It wasn’t his first injury. “I’ve had injuries even before I signed. I mean, I signed just after having my second knee surgery. I had my first knee surgery in 2006. It was a week before I was to go to Mexico with the Under-17 Australian team, so that was probably the hardest for me. The next one (happened) during a tournament in Australia, the biggest tournament in Australia for my age group, the under-18 national tournament. It was the semi-finals. I came in to close, and I was meant to start, in the playoff game and hurt my knee on the mound.”
In 2008, the injury was a little different. “I had a pinched nerve in my spine, and it was my ulnar nerve. It ran all the way through my shoulder, down past my elbow and to my fingers. I was pitching with it, but every now and then, I would tilt my neck and would feel a shooting, like pins and needles. I didn’t think anything of it. One day, I was pitching and it just started to burn. That’s when I finally said something. I had surgery the last day of the season, in early September. I had surgery and six weeks later, I was back and playing for the Perth Heat.”
Hendriks was frustrated by missing the full season, but he made the best of it and put it in proper, optimistic perspective.
“It was definitely tough not being able to play that year, but if I had played, I wouldn’t have been able to win a championship with the Perth Heat. I wouldn’t have been able to go to the World Baseball Classic or play for the Australian team in the World Cup in Italy. Without being injured, I wouldn’t have been able to do those things.”
Few Twins fans knew his name when he was selected to the Australian team for the World Baseball Classic. He began the 2009 season in Extended Spring Training before making three starts for the Elizabethton Twins. In 17 innings, he walked just one and struck out 13. He went 2-0 and opponents hit just .271. He was promoted to Beloit where he made 11 starts. He went 3-5 with a 3.51 ERA. In 66.2 innings, he walked 15 and struck out 62. He successfully made his return from surgery.
Hendriks returned to Beloit to start the 2010 season. There, he made six starts and was 2-1 with a 1.32 ERA. In 34 innings, he gave up just 16 hits, walked four and struck out 39. Opponents hit just .138 against him. He advanced to Ft. Myers and made 13 appearances (12 starts). He went 6-3 with a 1.93 ERA. In 74.2 innings, he gave up 63 hits, walked eight and struck out 66. Opponents hit just .225 off of him. It was his first full season, and he pitched 108.2 innings with a 1.74 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP.
Included in his season highlights was his selection to represent Australia and the Twins for the World Team at the Futures Game in Anaheim. Unfortunately, he needed an emergency appendectomy and was forced to miss a month.
When 2011 began, the assumption was that Hendriks would go back to Ft. Myers for another ten starts before moving up to New Britain. Instead, he began the 2011 season in the Rock Cats rotation. He certainly proved himself ready and capable by going 8-2 with a 2.70 ERA in 16 games (15 starts). In 90 innings with the team, he gave up 85 hits, walked 18 and struck out 81. He was selected to pitch in the Eastern League All Star game. He was also selected to participate in the 2011 Futures Game for the second straight year, and this time he was able to play in the game.
Following the All-Star games, he was promoted to Triple-A Rochester where he experienced ups and downs on the mound for the first time in his career. In his first three games, he gave up eight runs in 19.2 innings. He then had back-to-back clunkers. He gave up eight runs (7 earned) on eight hits in just two innings against Norfolk. That was followed by a game in which he gave up six earned runs on six hits in just five innings. However, he rebounded well. In his final four starts, he gave up just four runs in 22.2 innings. In those four game he gave up no walks and struck out 17. That was really the story of his time with the Red Wings. In 49.1 innings, he walked just three batters and struck out 30. Think about that. In 139.1 innings total in 2011, Hendriks struck out 111 and walked just 21 batters.
And then he thought his 2011 season was over. There were times in which he was hoping and almost expecting a call up. “I had a little bit of a feeling that I might be (promoted), but then Kyle Waldrop had been called up about 30 to 45 minutes before me. In my mind, I thought, ‘OK, obviously they’re taking him, and that’s it. I’m done for the year. I actually sent my girlfriend back to Ft. Myers. I was putting my bags on the bus for an eight hour trip to Pawtucket. As I got back, one of the clubbies came up and said Chief (Rochester manager Tom Nieto) wants to talk to you. He came in and said, ‘You’re not going on the bus to Pawtucket. You’re going up to Minnesota and you leave tomorrow!’”
“It was definitely very exciting! The first thing I did was call my girlfriend. She was happy, but she was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get on another flight?!’”
She didn’t mind. At all!
Hendriks came to the big leagues on Labor Day. The Twins had a double header against the Chicago White Sox. “I was lucky. I was able to pick the brain of some of the older guys and see what the White Sox lineup had to offer.”
What were his recollections of his first start and some of his big league firsts? “I tried not to get overwhelmed. It was definitely cool walking out on the field, walking out to the bullpen. I liked the fact that I threw to Rene Rivera, who I’d thrown to before, so that definitely made it a lot easier.”
“As I was warming up, they announced that I was making my debut and would be going up against Jake Peavy. As they said that, he (Peavy) leaned over the fence and said, ‘Good Luck! Don’t get nervous, and go out there and give ‘em hell!’ It was really cool of him to do that, and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Juan Pierre was the White Sox leadoff hitter that game. “I remember the first two pitches because the balls are a little bit different from the big leagues to the minor leagues. Usually I’ve got a good grip on the ball, but I think I was nervous. Well, obviously I was nervous! The first two pitches were up and away. The third pitch was also up and away but at least it was in the strike zone and he put it in play. We had him played pretty well and Rene Tosoni took the catch in left field.”
“And then the strikeout, all I remember was getting ahead of a guy. I can’t remember if I shook off or not, but I knew that the curveball was the pitch I wanted to throw. I was able to get it low and in, and luckily, he swung and Rene (Rivera) did a great job of catching the ball on the bounce.”
Hendriks is very proud of his Australian roots and how baseball has taken a bit step forward in the past decade. He knows that he is the 31st
Australian to play in the big leagues. He understands the intricacies of the game. He has the pitches to be very successful in the big leagues. He has great control of a fastball that is thrown between 88 and 93 mph with some movement. He also has a slider, a curveball and a changeup.
“I was lucky because when I was younger, I didn’t throw very hard, so I had to throw strikes. I was able to keep it up and as I started throwing harder it stuck with me which is always good. I can locate most (of my pitches) pretty well. I think my changeup is my best pitch, but at times, it is the slider, and every now and then, it’s even the curve ball. I’ve got the pitches so if one isn’t working, I can hopefully fall back on another one.”
“Philosophy-wise, just get ahead. You look at the averages up 0-2, rather than down 2-0. As soon as you get ahead, it makes the hitters sweat a little bit. Most of the time, guys aren’t going to hit you hard.”
Teammates and analysts talk about his competitive fire and his very high baseball intelligence. He understands how to pitch. He also understands the value of being able to field his position. “I take a lot of pride in my defense. I remember when I went to the Australian baseball academy, reaction balls were hit straight at us from about 35 feet away. That definitely helped me a lot. I was almost signed by the Angels as a 3B/LF. I’ve always been able to field a little bit, but I couldn’t hit, so 3B/LF was out for me. I always pride myself on my defense, and I get quite angry at myself if there’s a ball that I think that I can get that I don’t. Defense is a big thing for me because, even when I was in the big leagues, I was able to save two or three base hits, so that could have changed a lot of games for the worse.”
It has been a meteoric rise through the Twins farm system the past two years. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, he pitched in Beloit (Low A), Ft. Myers (High-A), New Britain (AA), Rochester (AAA) and with the Twins (MLB).
“Every now and then, I’ll think back and think that this takes guys six to eight years to do at times. And I’ve gone from Low A in my first full season in pro ball to the major leagues in two years. I look at it that way and think, ‘Oh Wow! That doesn’t happen often, especially to guys who were signed or drafted out of high school like myself.”
“As I was saying to Luke Hughes, the stars had to align for me to get the call up this year. Luckily enough they did, and hopefully I’ve opened up some eyes up there. I’m hoping to head to spring training and open some more.”
“There’s a high chance I’ll go back to Triple-A, and there’s a small chance I’ll start with Minnesota. At the same point, I’m just going to work as hard as I can in the offseason to try to get into the best physical shape that I can.
For the first time, Hendriks stayed in the States following the season. He worked out throughout the offseason at the Twins facilities in Ft. Myers with Twins strength trainer, Perry Castellano.
There is no question that Liam Hendriks has big league stuff. He also has all of those intangibles that often allow pitchers to be really good. Had the Twins not been so injury-plagued in 2011, we probably would not have seen Hendriks yet. He now has a sense for what it is to be a big leaguer. He most likely will head to Rochester with a better understanding of what it takes to be successful, and when he gets another opportunity (and he will), he will be prepared.