By Rob Rains
PEORIA, Ariz. – As he coaches hitters, like he did all summer in Springfield and is doing now in the Arizona Fall League, it’s part of Tyger Pederson’s responsibility to pay attention to pitchers.
The news of how Tink Hence was performing this season at the Cardinals’ Palm Beach affiliate, two levels below Double A Springfield, reached Pederson following each of his 16 starts.
“I had heard about him and what he did in Palm Beach, but to be able to see it with my own eyes here is pretty cool,” Pederson said. “He’s as special as they come.”
Hence, who turned 20 years old in August, is the youngest pitcher in the prospect-laden fall league but has more than justified the challenging assignment, facing some of the top hitting prospects in baseball who already have Double A or Triple A experience.
“He’s been up to 97; he’s got a live arm,” said Pederson, who is working as the hitting coach for the Salt River Rafters. “He’s got a banger curve ball and he’s got no fear. His composure on the mound, his compete level and his confidence is exactly where you want it to be for a young kid.
“He comes in against really tough lineups and goes right after guys. You know what you are going to get every night. He comes out and competes. ‘Here’s my stuff, hit it.’ It’s impressive for a young kid.”
As they did in the regular season, the Cardinals have been extremely careful with Hence’s workload. He hasn’t pitched more than an inning in his seven outings for Salt River, working a total of 6 1/3 innings. He has allowed three hits, with the only run he has allowed coming on a home run by Andy Pages, one of the Dodgers’ best prospects.
Hence, part of what is turning out to be a monster 2020 draft class for the Cardinals that also brought Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn and Alec Burleson into the organization, has struck out seven and walked three.
The performance comes after a summer in Palm Beach where he struck out 81 batters and issued 15 walks in 52 innings, compiling a 1.38 ERA while limiting opponents to a .174 average.
Hence was used as a starter in the summer, but never worked more than four innings in a game, which he did six times. That came after he did not get to pitch in 2020 because of the pandemic, then worked only eight innings last year.
“I feel like they wanted me to get my feet under me and not put too much stress on me,” Hence said. “They tell me the plan for the week and I feel good about it. I’m not stressed about going longer in games, even though I wanted to.”
Hence believes the Cardinals still project him as a starter as his career advances with a gradually increased workload.
‘Hopefully I can go out there for six or seven innings,” he said. “In high school, all my life, I’ve been a starter.”
Hence said his goal coming into the Fall League was to work on improving his changeup, which he didn’t really have much of a chance to use in the regular season.
“The goal wasn’t really about my performance; it was more about learning and working on things I didn’t get to work on during the season,” he said. “I’m trying to work on my changeup more than my other pitches even though all of them still need work.”
Hence has noticed a difference between the hitters he is facing now and those he pitched against in low A.
“These hitters, they go up to bat looking for their pitch and they don’t want to miss it,” Hence said. “It’s different from Palm Beach. There I could rely on my fastball and mix in the off speed here and there. Here I’ve got to kind of keep them guessing.
“I’m fortunate that my fastball is still playing as well as it has in the past. I just go at them with my best pitch and see what happens.”
Winn and Hence were teammates in travel in ball in 2019, for the Arkansas Sticks, before their senior years in high school. This fall has been the first time Winn has seen Hence pitch since a tournament in Jupiter, Fla., three years ago.
“Tink looks great,” Winn said. “He’s just so much more poised on the mound. He’s filled out a little bit and I think that’s helped with the increase in velocity. He’s just all-around more refined.”
Hence isn’t the only Cardinals minor-league pitcher who has used the opportunity to pitch in the Fall League to his advantage.
Lefthander Connor Thomas has been one of the more impressive pitchers in the league, leading the AFL with 24 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings.
“He’s punching out guys left and right, missing a lot of barrels,” Pederson said. “He’s got a lot of soft contact on the ground and is really commanding the ball.”
Thomas, 24, must be added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster this winter or he would be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. He spent the regular season at Memphis, recording 110 strikeouts in 135 innings, but had a 5.47 ERA.
Finishing the year in the Fall League, Ryan Loutos has made six appearances, working 11 innings, after a regular season that took him from Peoria to Springfield to Memphis. The undrafted righthander from Washington University recorded 72 strikeouts in 63 innings and finished with nine saves spread across the three levels.
“He does a really good job,” Pederson said. “He’s super smart and understands what he needs to do to get guys out. He makes pitches and works hard.”
It’s been a perfect ending to the 23-year-old Loutos’ first full professional season.
“I’m super happy,” Loutos said. “Just trying to soak it all up.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter@RobRains
Photo courtesy of Arizona Fall League and MLB