Image credit: Mike Janes/Four Seam Images
Trevor Hildenberger wanted to be a big leaguer, and while at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, CA, the 6’ 2” right-hander had no reason to think he wouldn’t be. He was the ace of his high school team and committed to California-Berkeley, so naturally, he assumed post-college he’d head to pro ball.
Then he arrived on campus.
Powered by RedCircle
“Everybody in high school is the best guy on their team, and then you get to college,” said Hildenberger. “I got there and everyone was as good if not better than me, and definitely stronger and bigger. I thought ‘Ah, this is it, this is about as far as it goes, and this is as good as I’m going to get.’”
Hildenberger clocked in a whopping two appearances as a freshman. During his sophomore season in the fall of 2010, he and his Cal teammates learned their program would be cut following the 2011 spring season, leading to an open run by Division 1 programs on most of his teammates—but not Hildenberger.
“Other guys were getting recruited by other schools to go transfer and continue their careers, and I wasn’t getting any phone calls, any letters,” said Hildenberger. “So I thought, ‘Ok, this is it, I’ll hang it up, I’ll stay at Cal, I’ll get my degree—and that’s going to be it for me in baseball.’”
While a group of donors was able to save the program, giving Hildenberger a chance to stay at Cal and continue playing, that didn’t mean he’d see the field. The spring of his sophomore year proved even less fruitful than his previous campaign.
“We went to the College World Series, and I wasn’t even on the travel squad. I redshirted that entire year—not because I was hurt, but because I wasn’t good enough,” said Hildenberger. “We hosted the Super Regional, I watched our team dogpile (…) but I watched from the stands—I watched all my best friends who poured the same blood, sweat, and tears into the work that I did, and they got to celebrate and go to Omaha (…) I definitely promised myself in the summer of 2011 that I was going to do what it takes to contribute, and the next time we had success I was going to be a part of it.”
He put the work on, but still, spring 2012 was more of the same, with Hildenberger mainly pitching in garbage time. However, towards the end of the season, during a bullpen, Hildenberger dipped down and tried throwing sidearm—with good results. Cal pitching coach (and current head coach) Mike Neu told Hildenberger that switching to sidearm was his chance to get on the bump in a meaningful way.
Hildenberger spent that summer pitching in summer ball in Bend, Ore and studying current and former big league sidearmers, trying to find the ideal arm slot and off-speed pitches. By that ensuing spring, he’d corralled enough of a repertoire from the lower arm slot to finally become a contributor on the mound, tossing 57.2 innings over 26 appearances, including five starts.
However, the June draft came and went with no selection, and Hildenberger had yet again come to peace with being done with baseball. With his degree nearly finished and no scholarship remaining at Cal, he prepared to move on with his life, possibly heading into a career as a film critic. Then Neu called with an offer.
“My coach calls me and says, ‘Hey, this incoming freshman unexpectedly signed late, and we actually have scholarship money, do you want to play a 5th year?’” said Hildenberger.
That 5th year changed Hildenberger’s life. The guy who barely sniffed the mound his first three years in college locked down the closer role for Cal. He recorded ten saves, tying a school record, and earned honorable mention All-Pac 12 honors.
After staring at life after baseball multiple times during his college career, Hildenberger was taken in the 22nd round of the 2014 draft by the Minnesota Twins and made his big league debut in 2017. Now 31, Hildenberger is only looking at a life with baseball, hoping to make his way back to the big leagues after missing a majority of the 2021 and 2022 seasons with injury.
On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ Giants righthander Trevor Hildenberger joins to discuss his rough transition into college baseball, converting to sidearm, and the importance of an unionized minor leagues.