Trevor Time: A Look at the Rise of a Closer
As he sits in the Picnic Pavilion at AT&T Field, Trevor Hildenberger doesn’t necessarily force your attention. Instead he seems humble, unassuming, focused on things larger than himself as he credits his coaches and the improved defense of his teammates as the first two reasons for his success this season and talks of the importance of the playoff race and winning even in the minors with the Chattanooga Lookouts. While he lacks the towering height of teammate Aaron Slegers or the titanic bulk of recent call-up Daniel Palka, what Hildenberger does on the field and how he does it very much demands your focus.
The first thing you notice watching Hildenberger on the field is his delivery. It starts with a fold in and whirl out, his arm nearly parallel to the ground below as he sends a pitch dancing toward home. As he hits spot after spot and records outs left and right, one would assume Hildenberger’s been doing this forever as the motion looks as natural to him as breathing. But that hasn’t always been the case.
“I switched in the summer of 2012 so this is a little over four years now,” Hildenberger said. “It was the end of my third year at Cal. I think through my junior year I had thrown a total of like 12 innings in three years. So I wasn’t very effective, I wasn’t very competitive. I just wasn’t pitching very many innings, let alone crucial innings.”
That’s when the coaching staff at the University of California-Berkeley suggested Hildenberger make a change and drop the arm angle in his delivery.
“My pitching coach suggested that I try it,” Hildenberger said. “See if I could get more competitive and if I could throw strikes from there, just with the fastball movement alone I would be able to compete more. And I said ‘anything. I’m trying to contribute. It’s my last year so let’s do what we can.’”
The transition did not begin smoothly.
“I went off to summer ball and it went horribly,” Hildenberger said. “I had like a six and a half ERA. Went through some growing pains.”
But Hildenberger stuck with it, adjusting slight things here and there. Hildenberger used to throw from a lower spot than he does now, but found that this pulled his head too far to the throwing side, causing him to “lose all concept of the strike zone.” So he shifted to being more upright, head held firmly and arm 180 degrees from the field below and perpendicular to his core.
Once he found the arm slot he uses now, he went to work on adding off-speed offerings to his repertoire, first picking up a slider over a six to eight month period of working on it, and then adding a change-up that has become as he put it, “the biggest key. Getting that over the plate and throwing that for strikes allows me to be aggressive and keep attacking.”
Then Hildenberger turned his attention on his diet and strength, dedicating himself to his eating habits and lifting resulting in a jump from where his sidearm velocity started at 83-85 miles per hour all the way up to 88-91 MPH, which is around where he sits now.
Armed with a fresh set of pitches and a new motion, Hildenberger took a massive step forward in his collegiate career. His final year at Cal-Berkeley, he went 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 10 saves, tying the school single season record while earning an All-Pac-12 honorable mention and drawing the attention of the Minnesota Twins attention in the 2014 MLB draft, where he was selected in the 22nd round.
Now a professional baseball player, Hildenberger’s most important adjustments are much more subtle, working with coaches on the mental side of the game and focusing on individual hitters.
“I attribute a lot to my coaches,” Hildenberger said. “Both Ivan [Arteaga] and Doug [Mientkiewicz] have helped me a lot with the mental approach. Ivan specially helped me understand what I’m good at, helping understand the situation, and the hitter, and what we’re trying to do to get him out, how to attack specific guys.”
And what has challenged him about understanding situations and specific batters at the Double-A Southern League level?
“Hitters have better approaches up here. When you get ahead late in counts and you have them 1-2, 0-2, usually in lower levels you can strike them out pretty easily,” Hildenberger said. “Breaking ball in the dirt, change-up, fastball up, but here they’re taking those pitches more often. They’ve seen them a thousand times. They’ve seen a fastball away a million times. They’re more experienced and have more patience and have a better approach, so to get them uncomfortable in the box is a bit more difficult.”
With as much respect and praise as Hildenberger gives to Southern League hitters, they haven’t been able to do much against the righty, who is putting up numbers that seem almost fictional: a 0.70 Earned Run Average, just four earned runs allowed in 38.2 innings pitched, a 0.70 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), a .157 batting average against, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, the most saves by a Lookouts pitcher since 2013 with 16, 19 total saves this season between Ft. Myers and Chattanooga, a total high enough to be in the top 10 of all of Minor League Baseball.
On and on the ridiculously successful numbers go for Hildenberger who keeps showing the adjustments and mentality shifts and mechanical changes are paying off. Yet, despite all this success, despite the movement on his pitches, the sound control, the deceptive and unique delivery, and yes, even despite the eye-popping numbers, none of this is what may be the most impressive and most important piece of Hildenberger’s game.
Instead it is Hildenberger’s failures and trials along the way that truly distinguish the 25-year-old.
First, his career looked to be coming to a halt his sophomore year of college when Cal cut the baseball program due to budget concerns.
“Guys were getting recruited other places, guys were transferring schools looking for other places to play and at this time my sophomore year I had pitched two innings,” Hildenberger said. “So I went to my junior year with two innings under my belt. Nobody wanted me. Nobody wanted a transfer with no experience. So I just thought I would stick at UC-Berkley, get one of the best educations in the world and that would just end baseball.”
However, the funds were raised and baseball returned to Cal along with Trevor Hildenberger, mid-transition to becoming a side-arm pitcher. Then, after four years of playing baseball and running out the lengths of his scholarship, Hildenberger received what he thought was his second career death sentence. He wasn’t drafted and had no scholarship offer to fall back on to play a fifth year.
Once again though, fate kept Hildenberger on the mound when a scholarship opened up with a top recruit unexpectedly signing to play pro-ball. Hildenberger jumped at the chance to pitch one more season at Berkeley before the Twins came calling.
“I like that I have come to terms two different times, three different times with the fact that baseball is out of my life,” Hildenberger said. “It was a big part of me growing up and it was a big part of me as a teenager and college, but now it’s over. I’ve already come to terms with that multiple times.”
How does that help on the mound?
“A lot of people have trouble when they get to proball when they’ve been so good their whole lives with failing. But I failed a lot in college. I was consistently sucking for years,” Hildenberger said. “So failure’s not new to me. I’m not afraid to get hit. And I’m not afraid to get released because baseball is a big part of my life, but I know that there’s life after baseball for everybody.
“I think I’m lucky to have had those experiences, and to have learned from those experiences. I wouldn’t say I use it as motivation, but I’m happy to have gone through that.”
As Hildenberger continues to prove himself to be one of the best closers in Minor League Baseball right now, and he keeps rising through the Twins system, and up the prospect rankings, it may be a long, long time before he has to come to grips with his career ending again.