This season brought left-hander Jonathan Hennigan to Triple-A for the first time in his career. In each of his first two outings, the 27-year old struggled, allowing four earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, resulting in a 21.60 ERA. A main issue was control as Hennigan walked four with no strikeouts. Since then, Hennigan has thrown 15 2/3 shutout innings, while walking just three batters and striking out 14. After posting a 4.20 WHIP in his first two games, he has notched a 0.57 WHIP over his last seven outings. So, what’s the difference?
“I figured out myself to be able to trust my stuff. I know what my stuff does now and I know how to pitch,” said Hennigan of what has changed. “That’s been the biggest thing, when you can trust your stuff, that’s going to get you a long way.”
Hennigan is part of a large contingent of relievers on the IronPigs roster and is beginning to separate himself from some of the others, something that as a 21st round pick, doesn’t always happen for a player. The journey has taken him from his home in Nacogdoches, Texas to Texas State and through the Phillies minor league system beginning in Williamsport in 2016. From there came 55 games with Lakewood before heading to Clearwater during the 2018 season and stepping up to Double-A Reading during the 2019 season. In 63 Double-A games, Hennigan produced admittedly weak numbers (3-7, 5.63) but the Phillies decided to have him open this season with Lehigh Valley.
One of the things that many players have talked about is the fact that the Phillies have brought in a number of new, younger coaches/managers in their minor league organization. Lehigh Valley pitching coach Cesar Ramos doesn’t turn 38 until next month and was pitching in the minors just five seasons ago. The relatability of younger coaches has been noticed by a number of players and Hennigan believes that it has helped him to develop.
“They understand the game. They have been in the shoes that we are in and they get this new era of baseball. This game has changed a lot even in the last five years and the those guys have been in it through that change and they recognize it and know what it’s all about,” explained Hennigan of the coaching staff at Lehigh Valley. “I have personally taken a lot from Cesar because he was a lefty too and a similar sinker type guy. It’s awesome to have someone like that.”
Ramos has helped to develop Hennigan’s slider, which is currently sitting around 80 to 82 miles per hour with his sinker touching the low-90s. His changeup comes in just a little harder than the slider. The three pitches have continued to develop well and are giving Hennigan enough weapons to battle hitters in spots during the game that are increasingly higher leverage positions as the young pitcher has grown his confidence and along with it, the confidence that Ramos and manager Anthony Contreras have in him. Among lefties in the bullpen for Lehigh Valley, Hennigan’s growing consistency has him in competition with Jeff Singer for the top spot out of the pen. Singer has struggled of late, giving Hennigan an opportunity to open eyes.
If Hennigan is able to relate well to his new coaches, his other “coaches” are even more relatable. “He says ‘I’m going to be your coach until you die,'” says Hennigan of his father who still lives in Texas, but travels to see him pitch whenever possible. Another lifelong coach will be Hennigan’s wife, who knows a thing or two about pitching. Randi Rupp-Hennigan pitched for Team USA and was drafted eighth overall by the Cleveland Comets of the recently defunct National Pro Fastpitch League. Rupp, who like Hennigan, pitched at Texas State University, understands the demands of pitching and can especially relate to the mental aspects of the position.
“She knows all about throwing strikes. She had that gift of throwing strikes,” said Hennigan when speaking of his wife, who is expecting their first child. “‘You’ve got to get ahead, you’ve got to do this,’ she’ll tell me about when I pitch. But then, there are days where she understands that I don’t want to be talked to and I don’t want to be messed with, so she gets it. She makes it a lot easier, to be able to go back and not get a lot of questions.”
Pitchers have had to adjust to changes like the pitch clock and the new “disengagement” rule, but Hennigan has rolled through them with little issue. He likes to work fast, but admits that he does at times glance at the clock, but overall, the pitch clock hasn’t been an issue, although he concedes that other pitchers have struggled with it and thinks the system may need a little tweaking. While he is straight forward and steely on the mound, Hennigan does admit to having his share of a left-handed reliever’s usual quirkiness.
One area where Hennigan conforms to his own routine, without fail, is in the bullpen. He has developed a routine that works for him and allows him to be ready to pitch as quickly as possible and has stuck to it. The routine is simple. When his name gets called, he throws seven warm-up pitches in the bullpen. That’s it. No more, no less. When he is brought into a game, he comes in and throws five more warm-up pitches on the mound. That’s it. No more, no less. After that, he is ready to go.
“I just know myself and what I need to be ready and it has helped because sometimes I am going out there for two innings, lately, so I’m saving some bullets and I guess now I just think about it like that,” said Hennigan of his routine. “I did it one time and it worked, so I guess I just stick with it. I do that every single time. It’s weird, but I’m a lefty, so I guess it’s just part of that weird lefty thing.”