Pat Hentgen had a lot of success against American League hitters in the 1990s, but he couldn’t solve Cecil. The Blue Jays right-hander had 19- and 20-win seasons, earned three All-Star berths, and won a Cy Young award. Against Cecil Fielder, he was a replacement-level stiff. Prince’s old man punished him to the tune of .360/.429/.880 in 57 plate appearances.
Why did the hard-throwing Jay struggle against Fielder, and to a lesser extent against Brady Anderson, Wade Boggs and Nomar Garciaparra? Conversely, why did he have success against Ken Griffey, Jr., Paul Molitor and Rafael Palmeiro? Hentgen — now a member of the Blue Jays coaching staff — did his best to answer those questions.
David Laurila: How did you get hitters out?
Pat Hentgen: I was primarily a fastball pitcher. I elevated the ball at times, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.
Coming up through the minor leagues, I was a fastball-curveball guy. They always instilled in us to practice throwing changeups, but that was always my third-best pitch.
When I broke into the big leagues, I realized that my fastball command was probably my best asset. For five years, I pitched with just a fastball and a curveball. In 1996, our pitching coach, Mel Queen, taught me a cut fastball. That made me a fastball, cut-fastball, curveball guy. Toward the end of my career, I started throwing my changeup more, so I was a four-pitch pitcher, with the changeup being my fourth pitch.
DL: How much did individual hitters dictate your approach?
PH: My approach was similar against most guys. I tried to keep it simple. I tried to get ahead and stay out of the middle. Late in the count I’d use my curveball or a high fastball. The main thing for me was looking at guys who liked to swing at the first pitch.
The toughest outs in the league were the guys who knew the strike zone and could spray the ball. To me, those were always the toughest guys to face. The guys who pulled the ball all the time were often easier, because it seemed like they had more holes.
DL: Who is the one guy you just couldn’t seem to get out?
PH: Probably Cecil Fielder [18 for 50, 8 home runs]. Cecil had a lot of home runs against me. We had pitchers come in behind me, and not throw as hard, and they’d throw it by him. For some reason, he saw the ball out of my hand really well.
Wade Boggs [16 for 46] was also a really tough out for me. Tony Phillips [11 for 30] was a tough out. So were A-Rod [8 for 26] and Derek Jeter [14 for 37]. For the most part, it was the guys you might expect, and Fielder was the toughest.
DL: How did Fielder differ from power hitters who didn’t have nearly as much success against you?
PH: I think that, for some reason, Cecil guessed right along with me. I don’t know if he saw something in my mechanics, where maybe I tipped my pitches, but it seemed like whatever I threw, he was on it.
I remember one time, I threw a changeup against him, in Toronto, and he hit it off the right-field wall for a single. Paul Molitor was playing first, and he asked to him, “How were you sitting changeup on a guy who throws one a game?” Cecil said, “He shook three times, so I was guessing changeup.” I shook my fastball, curve and cutter, so he guessed right and sat on my changeup.
I tried everything toward the end of my career. I even tried dropping down. Eventually, I figured out that my best bet was just to walk him.
DL: You had a lot of success against Molitor [6 for 30]. Why?
PH: I probably just made good pitches against him. I remember a game in Minnesota, after he left Toronto, where I picked him off on the third-to-first move. I was actually more proud of that. Given that we had played together for three years, I was pretty surprised that he fell for it. He was a great base runner.
DL: Nomar Garciaparra was 14 for 43 against you.
PH: He gave me fits. He was fearless, a guy who just sprayed the ball. I tried throwing everything I had to him. One game in Toronto I threw him six straight curveballs. I never did that to any player in my career, but it seemed like every pitch I threw, he hit, so I figured I’d try that. He got an inside-the-park home run against me, in Boston, down the right-field line. He’s another guy who saw the ball well off of me.
DL: How do know if someone sees the ball well against you? Is it basically the swings they’re taking?
PH: It’s usually the way the ball comes off the bat. You’re just not taking the sting off of the bat. You’re not fooling them a lot and they’re getting good, comfortable swings. With Nomar, I used to throw up and in, trying to get him off the plate, but it didn’t matter. He was fearless and really aggressive.
DL: Boggs had a very different hitting approach than Nomar. How did you go after him?
PH: I probably didn’t get Boggs out until the very end of his career. I started throwing him a batting-practice fastball, down and away, because when I’d throw my normal fastball, he’d shoot in in the five-six hole. When I threw my batting-practice fastball, he’d be out in front just a click and hit it to the shortstop. I never tried to strike him out. He was a tough guy to do that to, so it was more a matter of mixing my pitches and trying to take the sting out.
DL: How did you pitch to Rafael Palmeiro [12 for 55]?
PH: I stayed down and away with my fastball, or up and in, or I’d throw a backdoor curveball. I pitched a lot of the lefties the same way. If they had power, I’d usually try to stay with the same format. With guys like Palmeiro, and Ken Griffey, Jr. [4 for 28], I’d elevate my fastball, up and away, but I’d primarily try to stay down and away. I think I had more trouble with righties [.262/.325/.427] than I did lefties [.266/.337/.426].
DL: Why did Brady Anderson [17 for 43, 5 home runs] have so much success against you?
PH: That’s a good question. Like I said, certain guys just see the ball out of your hand better. I know that Brady hit his 50th off of me, the last day of the  season. I remember that I tried to cut the ball in on him. He was a leadoff hitter, too. You have to pitch to somebody when you’re in these lineups.
When Brady was playing in Baltimore, he had some great hitters behind him. That’s something I think goes unnoticed by the media and the fans, and even organizations and players, at times. You have to pitch to somebody. If you’re a starting pitcher, and you’re going in to face a good lineup, you have to pitch to the first two, three guys, because the four, five hitters are coming up behind them. They’re going to get pitches to hit, because you can’t put them on in front of the big bats.
DL: How did you pitch to Cal Ripken, Jr. [13 for 46]?
PH: He changed his batting style so much, and his approach so much, that you almost had to go at bat by at bat with him. You couldn’t really go on your past experiences, because he might come out and do something different. He was a guy who ambushed you and looked for a heater. I think he was a guess hitter. At times he was going to guess right and at times he was going to guess wrong.
I wanted to see what a hitter’s approach was. With Ripken, sometimes he would shorten up and try to put the ball in play. Other times, he would be trying to pull the ball down the line, and hit home runs. He was a guy who always kept changing. I don’t remember there being anyone else in my era who did that as much as he did.
DL: What do you remember about facing Lou Whitaker [9 for 29]?
PH: I faced Lou early in my career when I didn‘t have a third or fourth pitch. He was a dead pull hitter who could really power the ball to right field, and I think he eliminated my second pitch and just looked for one. He probably looked fastball every time. Early in my career, a lot of guys probably approached me that way, so if I threw balls out over the plate that were hittable, they were going to get stung pretty good.
DL: Did you pitch Whitaker differently at Tiger Stadium than at home?
PH: No, I didn‘t change anything based on the stadium. I didn’t even do that when I went to Fenway Park. I didn’t change my philosophy just because there was a short wall in left field.
DL: Manny Ramirez had mixed results against you, going 13 for 45 with 4 home runs.
PH: He was in that Cleveland lineup, with guys like Albert Belle [19 for 52], and I think he was hitting seventh. I faced him when he was with Boston, too. That’s when he was in his prime. Manny was always a great player. He was like Edgar Martinez 5 for 25] with more power. He could hit the ball to right center, he could hit the ball down the right-field line, he could hit it over the Volvo sign [atop the Green Monster seats]. He was a tough out who knew the strike zone really well.
He was another guy who looked for a certain pitch. If you could figure out which pitch he was looking for, you could get him. You could get him based on the sheer fact that if he wasn’t looking for a pitch, you would throw it and he’d take it. I think he learned that from Albert Belle. That’s what Belle did.
DL: Who was a better hitter, Ramirez or Frank Thomas [14 for 51]?
PH: Boy. I’ll tell you what, those were two of the toughest hitters in my era. I’d have to call that a wash, honestly. Manny may have hit for more power. Frank knew the strike zone as well as anyone, so his on-base percentage was always really high. He’d keyhole pitches and if you threw them there, he’d smoke them. They’re both Hall-of-Fame hitters.
DL: What about Boggs and Don Mattingly [11 for 24]? Who was the better hitter?
PH: Against me, it was Boggs, but I faced Mattingly in the last three or four years of his career. He wasn’t in his prime anymore. And remember, he didn’t have the luxury of guys around him in the lineup like some of these other guys you’ve mentioned. He wasn’t surrounded by as many good hitters as Yankee lineups usually have. He was obviously a great hitter, though. So was Boggs. There were a lot of great hitters in my era.
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