Hildenberger sets up nicely in Twins' bullpen

Side-armer looks to add durability after solid rookie season

January 24th, 2018

MARSHALL, Minn. -- knows how many things broke his way on his unlikely path to becoming one of the Twins' primary setup relievers, and now he's intent on proving his breakout rookie season in 2017 was no fluke.
Hildenberger, on the club's annual Winter Caravan this week alongside fellow reliever , Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven and broadcaster Kris Atteberry, was an unknown to most Twins fans heading into last year, but he was announced to huge applause by crowds at stops in Montevideo and Marshall on Tuesday in appreciation of his efforts in '17.
The side-armer emerged as perhaps the Twins' best reliever, posting a 3.21 ERA with 44 strikeouts, while allowing six walks and four homers in 42 innings. But the 27-year-old knows he must show that his success wasn't the result of just his funky delivery, and he's excited to continue to make adjustments now that more hitters have seen him.
"I'm a side-armer, but a three-pitch pitcher first," Hildenberger said. "I don't have overpowering stuff, but I mix speeds and mix pitches. Hopefully my movement gets some ground balls. But I'm a pitcher first and it's not about tricking guys."

Hildenberger's best pitch is his changeup, which he threw roughly 34 percent of the time last season, while mixing in his fastball and slider. He's working to improve his pitch patterns, including changing his arm angle earlier in counts to keep hitters off-balance.
Hildenberger originally threw over-the-top before serendipitously switching to sidearm after his third season at the University of California, simply because then-pitching coach Mike Neu noticed he was wearing No. 26, which was worn by side-armers at UCLA and Washington. Neu asked him to try throwing from the side during a bullpen session in April 2012.
It was a life-changing moment for Hildenberger, who received one scholarship out of high school and had pitched two innings his first two seasons before the program was shut down and revived in 2011. He thought his baseball career was over after his third year, only to finally get innings in his fourth season once he started throwing sidearm.
"My cleats were hung up already and I'd mentally checked out of the game," Hildenberger said. "I didn't pitch my sophomore year mostly because I wasn't good enough to pitch on that squad. I didn't even sniff warming up. I had a lot of growing to do and a lot of improvements to make. Those happened after my junior year."
Hildenberger again thought he was done after that season, but after a freshman player didn't enroll, another scholarship opened up for a fifth year that saw him take advantage by leading the Pac-12 in saves that season. Hildenberger wasn't sure he'd be drafted, but he was selected by the Twins in the 22nd round of the 2014 Draft, signing for just $1,000.
Hildenberger was never a top prospect in the Minors, but he continued to put up strong numbers while advancing quickly through the system with a career 1.57 ERA, allowing just four homers, in 172 Minor League innings.
"I played really loose in the Minor Leagues," Hildenberger said. "I wasn't scared of getting released because I had already realized my life could be fulfilled without baseball. So I think that was a big advantage for me."

Hildenberger made his debut for the Twins on June 23, and he earned the trust of manager Paul Molitor, eventually becoming the club's top setup reliever down the stretch. He will serve in that role again this season alongside .
"For Mollie to call on me when I didn't have the most experience was really a shot in the arm for me," Hildenberger said. "I look forward to trying to do the same role and being more durable every day."