In what is becoming sort of a yearly ritual for me, this past March I made the trek from cold and snowy Minnesota down to Arizona for the Brewers' spring training. I spent about a week there, and once again had the time of my life. I took in about as much baseball as a I possibly could, but the highlight of my trip down to the southwest this year was getting to sit down with one of the Brewers' hottest prospects, Ben Hendrickson, and interview him for the website. Ben was very candid and also showed that he was indeed a student of the game and a true asset to the Brewers' organization. A great many thanks to him for letting me pick his brain for an hour and a half.
BrewerFan: When did you start playing baseball?
Ben Hendrickson: Way back in tee-ball, when I was four, or maybe even three. I was always the shortstop back then, and didn't really start pitching until about 6th grade.
BF: Do you like playing defense?
BH: Yah, I love playing defense.
BF: What made you decide to switch over to pitcher?
BH: I had the best arm on our team and the coaches said "Well, why don't you try throwing off of the mound once?" And I was like "Alright." So I went out and I pitched, and I've been in love with pitching ever since.
BF: When you went to high school, did you get to start right away as a pitcher there?
BH: Freshman year I did pitch but I also played first base a lot. The coach there didn't want to put in me at shortstop where I could mess up my arm, although they let me play second base a little bit, and I love playing defense. Sophomore year I was strictly a pitcher, they wanted me to concentrate on that. In my sophomore year I was the number four starter when the season opened but by the time regions came along I was the number one starter. And then junior and senior year they let me start to hit again even though I was the number one starter both of those years.
BF: How many major league teams were after you when you were pitching in high school and what was their interest level?
BH: I don't even know about half the teams, they all talked to my mom. I didn't really even want to deal with it, so I told them all to talk to her. I got all kinds of letters and cards from scouts, and probably had contact with all 30 of the teams. There were three main teams as far as I could tell that had interest in me: Minnesota, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, and I thought that it was going to be the Dodgers that were going to draft me. They scouted me pretty hard, they had a crosschecker come watch me and they talked to me about four days before the draft, so I thought it was going to be them, but it ended up being the Brewers, and I was actually happier with that then I would have been going to LA because the Brewers need more pitching help.
BF: Was it hard attracting scouts, being kind of out of the way up there in Minnesota?
BH: The scouts will find you if you are worthy of being drafted. And I pitched outside of the state a number of times in showcases. Most of them were still up there in the Midwest, but they were pretty big tournaments.
BF: Were you disappointed in being drafted in the 10th round?
BH: Not at all. I am from Minnesota, and no one from here gets drafted. I think there was one other guy from here that got drafted the same year I did, and he was in the 40th round or something.
BF: When did you learn your curveball?
BH: Back in high school, during my sophomore year. I was messing around, playing catch with my dad, and I threw it and it hit him in the foot, so, I thought I might be on to something. He told me to keep throwing it, and I really like what it can do. I like it a lot.
BF: Which is your better pitch, your curveball or your fastball?
BH: It kind of depends on the situation. Normally, I like to throw my fastball more, but when I need a strikeout, I like to go to my curve.
BF: Does it ever hurt your arm to throw a bunch of curveballs? Do you worry about what it could do to your arm over the long haul?
BH: Jerry Nyman, our pitching coordinator, has tried to get me to change the way I throw the curve. I throw a spike curve - which means I put a finger on the top of the ball to put pressure on it. Nyman tells me that puts a lot of pressure on the ligaments in my elbow, but you know, that's my pitch, and I am not going to stop throwing it.
BF: You've been very healthy so far in your career, but if your arm started hurting, would you tell someone or just try to pitch through it?
BH: I would definitely tell someone. It's not like as soon as your arm starts getting a little sore the trainers are going to shut you down anyway. They may just have you put ice on it, or do some extra exercises. It would be dumb not to tell them.
BF: How is your arm doing?
BH: It's still pain free. I've gone out and done all my work and I haven't had any problems with it. Pitching a baseball is tiring, though. It is probably the worst thing you can do to your arm. You could go out and throw fifty innings of fast-pitch softball a day and really not faze your arm that much, but even one inning of pitching in a baseball game starts to wear you down.
BF: When you play anywhere below Huntsville, the Brewers don't let you hit at all during the season. Do you ever want to go out there and take a swing?
BH: Yah, I do. I go to batting cages all the time when I'm at home. And in spring training right now, I am with the Huntsville group, so I get to take batting practice every other day in the cages, and every once in awhile we get to take it out on the field, too. It's pretty easy to get your swing back, really.
BF: You had two pitching mates last season in Beloit, Justin Gordon and Greg Schaub, who were both offensive players at the time they were drafted, and like you hit all through high school. So, kind of knowing both sides of the coin, is it more mentally and physically challenging to pitch or to hit?
BH: Oh, pitching, no question about it. When you are a pitcher you always have to think about who is up, who is up next, this, that and everything,. You have to constantly think about what pitch to throw, how to react to a 1-0 count, and 0-1 count, and everything like that. But, when you are in the batter's box, you just have to take it pitch by pitch.
BF: I'm 6'5, a righty, can't make contact to save my life, but have a pretty good eye and when I hit something, I hit it hard. I pull everything and I lean in to the plate on the pitch. How do you pitch to me?
BH: I'd try to get you to hit something outside, to make you hit it the opposite way. First I'd probably go with a fastball in the zone low and away to get ahead in the count, and then a curveball away to see if you'd swing at that. Then I'd try to knock you off the plate a little with a fastball that is high and tight and then keep going away until I can strike you out or get you to hit it to the right side.
BF: More velocity or more control?
BH: I'd definitely rather have more control over my pitches. You look at Greg Madduz and the gun says he hits 90, but he probably only hits about 85, 86. The thing is, the man can throw a ball from the mound into a coffee cup at home, and that wins games. There are days I go out on the mound, my arm feels great, and I just get hit. Before I know it they have put up 5 runs, and all the sudden, I am out of the game. It's all about being able to control where your pitches are going.
BF: When you have a bad game, how crucial is it to forget about it?
BH: If I have a bad game, I just want to go back out on the mound the next day and fix it. Once you get back out there, your last start just totally leaves your mind and you start fresh and go on about your business.
BF: What do the Brewers expect out of you each time you take the mound?
BH: Give our team a chance to win. Simple as that.
BF: What are your goals? Obviously the biggest one would probably getting to the majors, with Milwaukee, or whomever.
BH: Yah that is the big one. I also have my own personal goals for each game that I write down, besides the goal of giving my team a chance to win each time out. I write all of my personal goals, I keep track of them and how I did. Beyond the game to game goals, I want to move up at least one step per year, and maybe this season I can go two steps, up to Huntsville. ERA is really important to me, so I want to win an ERA title in whichever league I am in when I get to the majors. Last year, I was among the leaders in ERA all year, so I would go out there and figure out in my head, "Well I gave up this many runs in this many innings this time