Twins farmhand and Aussie favorite Liam Hendriks nearly retired from baseball a decade ago -- when he was 13.
"I played a lot of Australian rules football growing up, so baseball was a secondary sport for me. I was 12 when I got cut from the under-14 state team. The next year, I came back and [thought], 'I really like to succeed at things, so if I don't make this team, I'm going to hang it up and look towards football exclusively,'" Hendriks recalled. "Luckily enough, I made the team and I got invited down to the Institute of Sport. It moved on from there."
It certainly did.
Now the Twins' No. 8 prospect -- and a candidate for the Major League rotation -- entering 2012, the right-hander is a long way from his home in, Perth, the capital city of Western Australia.
"Being from Australia is [a disadvantage] in a way when you first get signed. I didn't go to college, no one else had seen me," said Hendriks, a non-drafted free agent pickup by Minnesota in February 2007. "There's no real stereotypical Australian pitcher, but most from my side of the country, the West Coast, we're not the type who throw extremely hard. We pitch to contact, get good sink on balls and manage to have hitters get themselves out."
Hendriks, who (don't be fooled) can push his heater into the mid-90 mph range, added that he's more like fellow Minor Leaguer Brendan Wise (also from Perth) than Major Leaguers hailing from the east, Rich Thompson (Hornsby) and Grant Balfour (Sydney) "who just blow fastballs by people."
Utilizing a slider he picked up from a former big leaguer born in Geelong, another eastern city, Hendriks has finished each of his four seasons in the Minors with ERAs under 3.55. Last year, he recorded a 3.36 mark and won a career-high 12 games between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester before finishing in the Majors.
MiLB.com asked Hendriks to describe and grade each of the five pitches he employs. (His grade is based on a scout's traditional 20-80 scale, 50 being the Major League average.) Here is Hendriks, in his own words.
Pitch one: Four-seam fastball
: In Australia, we weren't allowed to throw curveballs until the age of 14, so I had to rely on fastballs and changeups. It's a countrywide rule. In games -- obviously, they can't control your training and all that -- it's considered a balk if you throw any sort of breaking ball.
Purpose: I'm starting to go now a lot more to the two-seam [fastball], but I still throw the four-seam in certain counts and things like this. It adds a little bit of "velo" and it doesn't move as much, so it's something different. I like to throw it in to lefties and away from righties; that's where it's most effective for me. I usually go glove-side four-seam, arm-side two-seam to mix it up.
Grip: Straight across the horseshoe. I just rear back and throw it.
Speed: Later on in the count, I tend to gas it up a bit more. Most of the time I hit 94, it's with at least two strikes on the guy. I really like to throw it as hard as I can, so anything above 90 is a good speed for me. ... I have only picked up the velocity in the last couple of years. During the 2009 offseason, the Twins shut me down completely from throwing, so I hit the gym pretty hard. I came into camp the next year feeling like I could let it loose, and that's carried over, which has helped me out a whole bunch.
Grade: I'm slightly above the Major League average speed and I have a little bit of movement to it -- it jumps at the end -- so I'd say a 55, 60.
Pitch two: Two-seam fastball
: I learned it my first year of pro ball in the Gulf Coast League in 2007. I went home late 2007, early 2008, when I was [only throwing] four-seam, curveball, changeup. I dropped my arm angle a little bit to get some extra movement and started throwing a two-seam and a slider when I went to that arm slot.
Purpose: It's a bit of a different look and it plays off of my changeup really well because it moves, roughly, in the same direction. Plus, it added a lot of ground-ball outs for me. If it's low, it sinks, but if it's up, it still has the run into a right-hander, which is always nice.
Grip: Straight in the middle, along the seams, in between the two horseshoes. The biggest thing is I use my middle finger rather than the pointer finger. I throw it identical to the way I throw my four-seam, and it comes off my finger and starts moving downward -- or, it does most of the time; sometimes it does something different.
Speed: My usual range last year was 86-94 [mph]. Usually, I like to have it between 88 and 92; that's where my two-seam is more affective.
Grade: Speed-wise, it's probably a 50, 55. Movement-wise, it ranges: On a good day, it can be 55 to 60; on an average day, it's around 50 to 55. I'd give it a 55.
Pitch three: Changeup
: I have been throwing a changeup since I was about 12. When I was growing up, I never threw overly hard, so I had to rely on changing speeds a lot. It's definitely my favorite pitch to throw.
Purpose: I like throwing my changeup a lot to lefties and righties. I can throw it in any count.
Grip: I hold it in a circle change grip, so I grip the middle of the horseshoe with my pointer finger, the inside of it to add a little bit of movement and take some speed off.
Speed: Around 78-81. Usually, I like to keep it just below 80. It's got a decent differential in speed with my fastball.
Grade: It's not a pitch that I shy away from, so I grade that one about a 65.
Pitch four: Slider
: I started developing it on my own in 2008, but I was having trouble with grips and stuff like this. And then one of my coaches back in Australia, Graeme Lloyd
-- he played in the big leagues for  years, won a couple of rings with the Yankees -- helped me out. He was a big, tall lefty, a sinker-slider-cutter guy who just did amazing things with the baseball, so it's definitely an honor to learn from him.
Purpose: Usually, I like to keep it away from righties and in to lefties. I have been working this offseason on backdoor sliders to left-handers, just because it adds something that maybe they haven't seen before or aren't expecting.
Grip: Along the edge of the horseshoe with my middle finger. I pretty much throw it as hard as I can.
Speed: In 2010, when I was having a pretty good year, it was between 82-86. Lately, the speed's been lower, but it's been more of a deceiving pitch. I like to throw it above 82.
Grade: I'd grade it around Major League average, a 50. It works well for me when I can get it over and things like this. It's one of the pitches I am gaining confidence in during Spring Training.
Pitch five: Curveball
: I started throwing it in 2005. I had just come back from my first knee surgery. I could never throw a curveball before then, and I played around with it while I was hurt, [trying] grips and picking everybody's brains around me and managed to start throwing it.
Purpose: It's not a mid-at-bat pitch. It's usually a good first pitch to get over or a strikeout pitch.
Grip: When I first started throwing it, it was extremely slow, about 65-70 miles an hour. Since I have gained velocity on my fastball, it's now picked up. I like it around 72, 74, and I can get it a little bit harder if I really bear down on it. But most of the time, that's more of a two-strike pitch in the dirt.
Speed: I grip it off my pointer finger. Coaches were telling me to throw it off my middle finger, but that never felt comfortable.
Grade: Last year, it was around Major League average. This year, it's not quite working as well for me, so at the moment it's about a 45. But I'm hoping I can get it back to where it was.