Twins' Hendriks Makes A Quick Impression
Liam Hendriks admits that most Australian players have fewer adjustments to make to playing in the U.S. than their Latin American counterparts, thanks to the lack of a language barrier.
But coming to the U.S. from Perth, on Australia's Indian Ocean-facing west coast, Hendriks still has had to get used to American culture and American food.
"It's just such a different lifestyle," Hendriks said in a phone interview while waiting out a rain delay in Lakeland, Fla. "I was kind of fortunate because I came over with other Australians who had been here before, so they helped me get use to it. But it's really different, especially the food.
"Everyone here always goes out to eat every night, it seems. When we were in our hotel in Fort Myers in extended (spring training), it seemed to be to be a lot different. Not only is it hard to eat healthy, but it's expensive.
Hendriks comes off like a bit of a health nut there, and it makes some sense. His father was an athlete, an Australian Rules Football player, and his sister also is an athlete. But he's also Australian, so he's not all work and no play and he has a sense of humor.
"I have been to Outback," Hendriks said of the Australian-themed chain restaurant. "They serve a certain Australian beer that I like, I admit, one I drink. So all the Aussies go there for dinner in spring training together, and we drink them right out of that beer."
Breaking Down Barriers
That's one stereotype of Australians. The other one, which Hendriks is working to dispel, is that they're not good enough at baseball. Hendriks is part of the Twins' contingent of players from Down Under, a group that includes 40-man roster member Luke Hughes as well as fellow pitcher Brad Tippett and catcher Allan de San Miguel. The organization has invested in Australia for years, producing players such as Hughes, a 2008 Futures Gamer, and Grant Balfour, now a reliever with the Rays.
Hendriks is working to become the next one to break through, and he's already overcome significant obstacles to get to where he is. He's had two knee operations and had back surgery in 2008 that he insists "wasn't as bad as it sounds."
Then as he explains, it still sounds bad.
"It was in 2008, and I had a bit of a vertebra shaved down at the base of my neck to make sure I could feel my fingers again," he said, completely deadpan. "It was pressing down on a nerve. I started feeling it kind of go numb, my hand would tingle, go in and out, in 2007. It went away and then it came back and then we realized I needed to have the surgery."
Hendriks had put up an excellent debut in 2007, giong 4-2, 2.05 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before missing the 2008 season after his surgery. He came back with 14 starts in 2009 and already was close to matching that total in 2010.
In his first 12 starts, Hendriks was 6-2, 1.60 overall between low Class A Beloit and Fort Myers, good enough in ERA to rank 10th in the minors. He also was pounding the strike zone, walking just nine in 73 innings in true Twins fashion, and he had 72 strikeouts while limiting opponents to a .187 average.
"Most definitely the best part of the year so far has been staying healthy," he said. "Our pitchers in our organization have been hit pretty hard by injuries so I'm glad I've stayed healthy."
Hendriks gives hitters a healthy diet of quality strikes. His fastball sits at 90 mph and ranges anywhere from 86-92 mph, at times touching 94. He throws it for strikes and does likewise with his slider, changeup and slow curveball.
The athleticism evident in his family background, which made him a strong center fielder as an amateur, allows him to repeat his delivery.
That athleticism is also what led the Twins to sign him in the first place despite his injury history with his knees. He tore cartilage in his meniscus prior to signing, then reinjured the same knee nine months later. His father also had four surgeries and his sister has had two knee operations as well.
"Liam is the Australian version of a multi-sport athlete," Twins international scouting coordinator Howard Norsetter, who signed Hendriks, said via email. "He is from an athletic family. His father was an Aussie Rules football star. His sister is one of the better young high jumpers in the country. Liam had to chose baseball over footy, and he had to choose pitching over hitting.
"He has always been a fierce competitor. He does have a history of injuries, however, which caused a lot of teams to back off. We were willing to take the risk. We had been following him since he was 14, and were sold on the makeup and the athleticism."
Hendriks is fulfilling that promise this season, earning a promotion from Beloit after six starts to get a roster spot in balmy, Fort Myers in the Florida State League. He won four of his first six starts and should keep his spot with the Miracle even if other Twins pitching farmhands get healthy.
"I'm really just working to get better," he said. "I'm trying to get my curveball back. I had it before the (back) surgery, and I've had a hard time getting it back since then. I'm trying to have better command of my four-seamer and two-seamer, and lately my slider has been my next-best pitch. It used to be my changeup.
"If I get my curve back, then I feel like I'd have four pitches to throw for strikes and really feel good about it."