The 6’6” lefty is a towering figure on the mound at City Stadium in Lynchburg. A thin beard frames the face of Cleveland’s fourth round selection of the 2014 draft. With eight starts under his belt, including his first career Opening Day nod, Sam Hentges is beginning to show the potential that he exhibited before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
After suffering the injury midway into the 2016 season (he had 14 starts for the Low-A Lake County Captains), his progress through the Indians farm system was delayed. Now, almost two years since his surgery, he is returning to form as he demonstrates what he can do on the mound.
“I take things from the weight room and the training room and bring them to bullpens and every day throwing,” said Hentges about his recovery from surgery.
His pitching career did not begin until his junior year at Moundsview High School in Arden Hills, Minnesota. Winning the Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014 elevated his draft status, ranking among the youngest players in that year’s draft.
Growing up around the Twin Cities, with a father who had played collegiately for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, baseball has been a part of his activities since he was four years old. Of course, in Minnesota the weather limits year round baseball, so he also played football and hockey.
“I think it was a good decision I made,” says Hentges about entering the draft rather than playing for the Gophers or attending the University of Arkansas where he had committed. “My family and I weighed our options. In hindsight, I think it was the right decision.”
His repertoire features a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a change-up. With his fastball velocity usually in the low 90’s, he is learning to develop his off-speed offerings to set up the heat.
“My change-up has seen some big strides of late and the curveball is right there with it,” said Hentges on his mound work for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. “Neither pitch is where I want it to be, but repetition working on it in games as much as you can, and working on stuff every day in my throwing program, will help sharpen these tools.”
As the top starter on the Lynchburg staff, Hentges is tied or tops on the Hillcats in starts, wins, strikeouts, and ERA. He is the only Hillcats pitcher to register a double-digit strikeout game, fanning ten Frederick Keys batters in six innings on the way to his second victory of the season.
With his height, and the advantage of pitching left-handed, Hentges has some leverage over the hitters he gets to face.
“I think being tall and left-handed enables me to keep the hitters guessing,” he said about his pitching style. “It’s just naturally the way I throw and it’s difficult for them to see that [the ball].”
In 39 innings wearing the teal, white, and lime colors of Lynchburg, Hentges has racked up 43 strikeouts and only given away 15 free passes to first base, while limiting opposing Carolina League hitters to a .275 batting average.
He was one of the more dominant pitchers in the Carolina League in April, with a 2-0 record and a 2.13 ERA. Fortune has not been as kind during May, where he is 1-2 with a 5.27 ERA halfway through the month. His strikeout total leads the Hillcats, but sits nine behind League leader Jonathan Hernandez, a former Future’s Game participant, of the Down East Wood Ducks.
“Being aggressive early and getting at least the first or second pitch in the strike zone,” Hentges said, is important to how he plans to perform on the mound. “I think just staying aggressive. That will enable you to help get guys out quicker.”
Pitching quicker will help him to go deeper into games and give him more opportunities to work on all three of his pitches.
Starting the season at Lynchburg is a challenge for Hentges, and he is rising to that challenge, both on the mound and in his work to improve his physical and mental discipline. Now in his fourth year in the Indians system, Hentges is positive and objective about what he needs to do to recover from the injury detour that slowed his career.
“This was my fourth spring training,” shared Hentes. “Obviously a couple of them have been cut short due to my injury, but it’s nice to feel like I’ve been here and am comfortable with the coordinators and all the guys in the clubhouse. Comfortability is a good word for it.”
Over the 140-game minor league season, which runs from April through early September, there are not too many free days. The Hillcats feature a group of teammates who enjoy traveling the fairways, rough, and bunkers of local golf courses.
“If we have an off-day I like to go golfing,” he says.
Hentges also enjoys fishing, and has even gone ice fishing a time or two, though it is not his favorite way to fish.
“It’s a little tougher now,” he says about finding time to fish, “because I have limited time during the off-season.”
The year-round demands of professional baseball allow only small windows of time for recreation. Training and conditioning become important aspects of advancing and developing and Hentges’ sights are set on the highest level.
“I feel like I have a good work ethic, and a good head on my shoulders to get where I want to be at the end of the day,” says Hentges.
When the day finally ends, Sam Hentges wants to be wearing a Cleveland Indians jersey. The rest of this season is the next step on his pathway to that pinnacle.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats