Overcoming the odds: Parts I thru IV

Overcoming the odds

By: Brian Hensen-January, 2006


My name is Brian Hensen. I am 23 years old, 6’4”, 170 lbs. and a left-handed pitcher playing minor league baseball in the “High A” Florida State League in Lakeland, Florida. I was drafted in the 28th round of the 2004 draft by the Detroit Tigers, after having pitched two years at Elon University, and prior to that, for two years at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida. The second day of that 2004 draft was probably the best day of my life, because you see, according to most experts, I was simply not qualified to pitch professionally. I can only throw a baseball about 84 mph top speed. I just plain don’t throw a baseball hard enough to make it to the next level, whether that be college or whatever.

Then you may ask, how in the world did you ever get drafted? Do you have a killer knuckleball, or is your dad a former Major League player? No, it was neither of those things. I’ve never tried seriously to throw a knuckleball, and the zenith of my dad’s athletic career was the high school BOWLING team. Rather, my getting drafted was probably more about luck, and being in the right place at the right time, and maybe about God smiling down on me. But it was also a lot about determination, skill development, being a student of the game and listening to the best teachers I could find in the game of baseball.

I have played amateur ball with probably 500 or more players, some of them great players with far more athletic ability, or “tools” in the pro scout jargon, than I have. And very few if any of them are fortunate enough to still get to play this great game. So how did I get so lucky?

In my case, the luck was at least partially made from the following factors:

I associated with the best teachers and coaches we could find. These coaches knew the game, physical and mental, were great teachers, and gave me great opportunities to play baseball in the most competitive atmosphere possible.

I developed an understanding and appreciation that pitch speed is probably only the 5th most important ingredient to successful pitching (behind general mental outlook, location, movement and what pitch to throw in the count). This is totally contrary to the theory of most scouts at all levels who focus first and foremost on pitch speed.

I believed in myself and was willing to follow my heart even when I was told by many coaches and scouts that I didn’t have what it took to succeed at their level.

As a high school senior, throwing about 81 miles per hour top speed, my chances to get into a good college baseball program were pretty bleak. I had played three years of summer and fall travel ball with various upstate South Carolina teams and had a good deal of success as a pitcher against the best competition I could find. And I had three good years of pitching for Daniel High School in my hometown of Clemson, South Carolina. I had also attended several showcases, including a Perfect Games showcase in the dome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But no Division I school was interested in me as a scholarship baseball player. One Division I South Carolina school offered me space as a walk-on, but held out no hope for a scholarship in years 2, 3 and 4 of college (even, they said  if I were to become their #1 starting pitcher). Finally in June after I graduated from high school, one of my very good travel ball coaches, Karl Schilling, got me a tryout with Coach Gary Calhoun at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida.  After the tryout, but primarily on the recommendation of Coach Schilling, Coach Calhoun offered me a scholarship. Hillsborough CC was a former National Champion JUCO program under Coach Calhoun, and the level of baseball in a Florida JUCO was, and is very, very good. So I enrolled at HCC and took off that August for Florida, just hoping I would get my chances to pitch, and hoping to make good when I got the opportunity. 

Part II

Wouldn’t you know, at the beginning of fall practice that year, there were 15-20 pitchers lined up trying to get one of five starter positions on the team. In junior college ball, teams are allowed to play an actual season in the fall against other JC’s, so we knew we would get several chances to throw against live competition in games. But in practice, the curve ball I could get most high school hitters out with was being hit pretty hard by my teammates, so I worked on the side on my own to develop and improve my change-up. It was a good thing I did, because to get through JC hitters down in Florida, I could not count on striking them out. I just had to learn to make them hit the ball, but hit it poorly. If, before I had believed a perfect game was 27 strikeouts in a row, now I had come to believe a perfect game was 27 consecutive first pitch ground ball outs. The change-up was just what the doctor ordered, and helped me to keep my team in the games during that fall.  Also it was important not to give up any “free” base runners, so I worked hard to get ahead in the count, pitch on the corners, and not to walk anybody. Ultimately, at the end of fall ball, the coaches told me I had done well enough to earn the #4 or #5 starter spot for the spring season, so I was pumped. Then, the grade reports came in, and we lost one of our top five starters, and by the time February rolled around, another of the top five starters had arm trouble, so at that point I was a solid #3 in the rotation. Each year the actual JUCO season begins with several series of non-conference games, and because some of the other starters struggled, when conference games came around I was given the start as #1 guy in the rotation. I pretty much pitched out of the #1 position for my two-year stay at Hillsborough, just trying to keep my team in games and giving us a chance to win. Our team struggled those two years, playing well below .500 ball, but my W-L was 15-9 for the two years at HCC and I was named Most Valuable Pitcher for my team both years. And my fastball was all the way up to 82 mph!

In the fall of my sophomore year at HCC, I was picked to pitch in a Florida JUCO All-Star game, which is really an exhibition for four-year college coaches and pro scouts, because JUCO players are eligible for the draft each year. It was held at the Astros spring training complex in Kissimmee, Florida and there were probably over 500 coaches and scouts in the stands that day. I got to pitch two innings, with only mixed results, but the good news was, some coach or scout was there with a broken radar gun. It had to have been broken, because the coaches from Elon University wrote down very plainly in their notes, that LH pitcher Brian Hensen from HCC hit 87 mph on the gun that day, and Elon was desperate for a left-hander for their staff the next season. I had kind of set in my mind that Clemson, Florida or Florida State should be my next school, but offers were not forthcoming from any of them. So when I looked at the Elon schedule and saw NC STATE, NORTH CAROLINA, DUKE, WAKE FOREST, AUBURN, MIAMI and CLEMSON (my home town), I knew ELON had to be a very serious baseball program. A little research by my parents, and a visit to Coach Mike Kennedy to meet him and the staff and see the facilities was all I needed to sign on the dotted line for a partial scholarship, and set in motion a two-year journey through Division I ball pitching for ELON.

Part III

Fall ball is very different in Division I than in JUCO. There are no inter-squad games allowed, so all live action is against your teammates. I know the coaches kept looking for that 87 mph to pop up on the gun, but all they got was 81’s and 82’s.  But our coaches, especially my pitching coach Austin Alexander, saw that I KNEW HOW to pitch, and so I kept getting chances, and by the time the season rolled around was slated to be a mid-week starter, which was just fine with me. That meant I would get shots at some of the big ACC schools that we played in mid-week games. Also, I could come into games as a reliever sometimes on the weekends. Our opener was on a Friday with NC State, and our #1 starter struggled that day, so I got the call to come into the game in the third inning. The change-up and curveball were both working and I managed to go 6-1/3 very effective innings before coming out in the ninth. I knew, and more importantly the coaches knew, I could pitch against good Division I hitters, even if I couldn’t throw very hard. Elon had a good season that year, and we just missed making the NCAA tournament field. We had a great group of guys on the team, and made friendships I fully expect to last a lifetime. My personal highlights were a 6-2 record, with starts and victories over Wake Forest (twice) and Clemson by a score of 11-2 at Clemson (my hometown and in front of many family, friends, former coaches and teammates). And my fastball was up to 83 mph!

For summer ball that year, my coaches at Elon got me a really plum assignment to play for the Wilmington Sharks in the Coastal Plains League. In that league hitters must use wood bats. I just knew that had to be good for us pitchers, and I was not disappointed. In college ball facing aluminum bats, an ERA in the 3.00’s or 4.00’s is pretty good. But in the Coastal Plains league, a lot of ERA’s are in the 1.00’s and 2.00’s. My teammates played very good defense, and the parks were big. So my working theory of trying to make hitters hit the ball, but hit it badly really worked well. And I absolutely refused to walk anybody (3 walks in 70 innings). Baseball at the beach was a lot of fun, the crowds were large and lively, and everything was set up to favor pitchers over hitters. We got to play with guys from a lot of different colleges that normally were our opponents, and it was a lot of fun getting to know them as teammates and friends. For most of the year, Wilmington would eak out wins whenever I pitched, so at mid-year I got to go to the All-Star game and was the substitute starter for my squad because the originally designated starter had pitched for his regular team the day before the break. I did well there, and enjoyed the rest of the summer pitching for the Sharks. I finished the season 9-1, with a 1.02 ERA. So wouldn’t you know it, they awarded me the leagues Pitcher of the Year honor. I give all the credit to those wonderful wood bats, big parks, and having a great defensive team. And I was still only throwing 83 mph.

I had been proving by my performance that I could pitch to college hitters. But with only one year left in college, and looking ahead, I knew any baseball future was now in the hands of another group, pro scouts. My parents would watch them anytime they came to games, and were both frustrated and amused at what transpired. Most of the pitchers in Division I and the CPL throw 85-90 mph, and many can throw in the low 90’s and higher. Whenever a new pitcher takes the hill, all the radar guns come out and the scouts record pitch speeds and other data, making notes on players to include in their reports. When I would pitch, invariably they would record the first pitch (say 82), shake the gun a little, record a second pitch (say 81), put the gun in its case and head to the concession stand for a popcorn and soda! No need to make notes on this guy! So it was time and again with the scouts.

Part IV

It was on to a new year, my senior year at Elon. That year a lot of time was spent creating and strengthening friendships, a lot of schoolwork, and of course, another challenging season against the likes of Miami, Clemson, and North Carolina as well as our first year in the Southern Conference against the College of Charleston, The Citadel, and UNC-Greensboro, among others. My role was to be a  #2 or #3 and midweek starter. My personal highlight was a second victory over Clemson (this time a complete game 7-1 win) and a 6-2 record on the year. Once again, we had a good season finishing just short of an NCAA tournament bid. When we finally lost out in the SoCon tournament and our season was over, it hit me that I would probably never again play a game of organized baseball in my life. I can’t even describe to you how empty and wasted a feeling that was. Most of our seniors had the same feelings. Something that was so big a part of our lives was so completely and utterly finished forever. You see, most college players who are about to be drafted, know it. They have been scouted, and talked to, or their coaches have been approached by pro scouts so they know that there are several teams looking at drafting them. In my case there was little or no inquiry or discussion. After all, what scout wants to tell his major league team they really NEED a pitcher who tops out at 83? So when the first day of the 2004 draft passed and no news had come, I was not even mildly surprised. 

On the second day of the draft, about 2:00 in the afternoon, I got a call from the Detroit Tigers saying they had drafted me, Brian Hensen, from Elon University, in the 28th round of the draft. I don’t think I heard anything else they told me on that call. I was simultaneously excited beyond description, and totally unbelieving of what I had just heard. My dad was there with me, (he works from home), so he shared my great news even as I was on the phone. But then I got to call my Mom at work to tell her, “your son gets to play professional ball, I just got drafted”.

Mom says her heart melted.

You see for all the radar guns out there, both functioning and broken, there was at least one pro scout out there who looked for something other than pitch speed. In my case, it was in the Coastal Plains League that summer, where a Detroit scout saw me, liked what he saw, made some notes (probably not about pitch speeds), and concluded on the spot that he would do everything he could to have Detroit draft me. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, and wouldn’t know for almost a year. But my coaches were there, working for me in the background, urging this scout to go ahead and take a chance on a soft-tosser like me. 

So now I can continue my dream of playing baseball. I’ve played two years of Class A minor league ball with the Lakeland Tigers, finishing last year at the Double-A level. My role now is as a middle reliever. I still only throw about 83 or 84 mph top speed. And I still survive using a philosophy of getting ahead in the count, pitching to contact and letting my teammates showcase their defensive skills. So far it has worked pretty well, even against the great athletes and hitters in the pros. My first year the team didn’t win a lot of games, but this year (2005 season) my team had the best won-loss record in all of professional baseball. That includes the majors, AAA, AA, three levels of class A ball, and various Rookie Leagues. Both years have been a blast, although winning was a lot more fun than not winning. We work hard at our craft, and sometimes the lifestyle becomes a bit tedious. But, I can’t think of anyone out there with whom I would wish to trade jobs. After all, I’m still chasing my dream.