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Let's Go Tribe interview with Mahoning Valley starting pitcher Juan Hillman

Juan Hillman speaks with Let's Go Tribe about his routine, adjusting to big league hitters, and his love of video games

Tony Lastoria/IBI

Juan Hillman never planned on being a baseball star.

Growing up, Hillman was all about football, but everything changed when MLB pitcher Tom Gordon saw his arm strength in little league. Gordon would become Juan's mentor, godfather and even his legal guardian as he developed into one of the top high school pitching prospects in the country alongside Gordon's son's Dee and Nick (you can read plenty more about their unique relationship here).

Last year, the Cleveland Indians made Hillman the 59th overall selection of the 2015 draft, taking him with their second round pick behind fellow pitchers Brady Aiken and Triston McKenzie.

The 19-year old southpaw has shown incredible promise thus far with the Low-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Through six starts in 2016, he has an ERA of 0.89, striking out 26 and walking just eight in 30.1 innings and is currently riding a 25.2 scoreless innings streak.

Hillman spoke with Let's Go Tribe about his routine, adjusting to big league hitters and his love of video games in this exclusive interview.

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Brian Hemminger (Let's Go Tribe): You were one of seven kids growing up. Were you the baby? The middle? What was that like?

Juan Hillman: I was in the middle, but my mom always called me the baby. I was a middle child but still got attention. I have a very athletic family. My sister runs track at Auburn, I have a brother playing football at Liberty University. My other sister is playing softball at high school and my little sister is working to get better at volleyball.

Brian Hemminger: That's pretty diverse, and speaking of other sports, baseball was definitely not always your main goal. You were a pretty great football player as well growing up. How difficult was it to give that up, especially a star quarterback gig, to focus on baseball?

Juan Hillman: I was always football first growing up. It was hard, absolutely, but I knew I had a better shot at baseball. I didn't think that at first, but I kept playing the game more and more and doing more showcases and things like that, plus being around the Gordons, that was an eye-opener. Baseball was where you can have a future and a longer career.

Brian Hemminger: Speaking of the Gordons, Nick Gordon was one year older than you and was the closest to you in age. Did you guys have more of a special bond because of that?

Juan Hillman: Oh yeah. We're pretty much tight as blood brothers now. Whether we're playing video games or getting on the field, there's always a competition between us. It can get very competitive at times, especially with video games. We're very, very tight.

Brian Hemminger: I was just about to ask how competitive you guys were at video games because I saw some tweets where you two were talking some smack to each other. What's the game of choice?

Juan Hillman: We play the NBA2K series, any 2K whether it's the older ones or the modern versions. He started out the best when we were playing 2K12 and 2K13 but I just couldn't take losing anymore so I really devoted myself to 2K and now he doesn't like to admit it, but I'm better than him at 2K now.

Brian Hemminger: What's your team when you guys duke it out?

Juan Hillman: We always play the best two teams. Either he plays the Cavs and I get the Warriors one game or I get the Cavs and he plays the Warriors. Sometimes we just don't want to have an excuse so we go Warriors vs Warriors or Cavs vs Cavs to see who's really better and of course I come out on top. He beat me a few times, I'll admit that, but I beat him more. We're very competitive.

Brian Hemminger: You were behind the Cavs pretty heavily in the latest NBA Finals. Did you kind of adopt them as your team after you got drafted, or were you always a fan?

Juan Hillman: My favorite team is actually the San Antonio Spurs, but when it's down to The Finals and my team isn't in The Finals, I go for whatever team I feel like winning. Last year, I wanted to see Steph Curry win the championship so I was rooting for the Warriors like right when I got drafted. They were in the title game and I posted on Twitter that I wanted Steph Curry to win and I got some serious hate from Cleveland fans who had just started following me. (laughs) I learned my lesson.

This year, I was rooting for the Cavs because the Warriors already won it last year.

Brian Hemminger: This question is from Jason Lukehart. How do you pass time between games when you're on a road trip?

Juan Hillman: Yeah, back to the video games (laughs). I have a video game system in like a suitcase with a built-in TV, like a 15 inch TV. There's a game system inside the suitcase and you can open it up and I just play video games. Hopefully the hotel has good Wi-Fi so I can play online because I'm big about playing online whether it's 2K, Madden, MLB The Show, Call of Duty, you name it. If the internet sucks, I'll play against the other players on the team or just chill with Triston [McKenzie].

Brian Hemminger: There seems to be some healthy competition between you and Triston McKenzie. Does that spread beyond just the baseball diamond?

Juan Hillman: Yeah, video games, and the truth is, he holds the crown in Call of Duty. He's probably the best one in this whole organization at Call of Duty. It's hard to beat him. I never have and never will. If I beat him at a sports game, and he's good at FIFA as well, but if I beat him at 2K or Baseball, he'll be like, "Let's play Call of Duty. Let's play Call of Duty. You know I'll beat you in Call of Duty." I'm like, "Nahhh, you can have it" (laughs) because I know I have like no chance at all.

Brian Hemminger: Change of subject, what's the backstory behind your Twitter profile pic with the golf clubs. When did that start up?

Juan Hillman: Yeah, that was just a playing-around thing. My roommate had some golf clubs and we went to this place called "Top Golf" and my favorite thing with golfing is just hitting it hard because I'm not a hitter so I just wanted to get some good swings in for golf and see how far I can hit it. I just go to the driving range and that's pretty much all I do, not the rest of the game. I can't do it. I can't putt. I'll work to get better with golf in my spare time during the offseason with Mr. Gordon. He's always telling me he wants me to try something other than video games, whether it's playing golf, driving the cart or going fishing.

Brian Hemminger: I saw you were asking for some Netflix recommendations in the offseason. What's your guilty pleasure Netflix show?

Juan Hillman: I like the one that's all in Spanish, where you have to read the captions at the bottom, the thing with Pablo Escobar, "Narcos." I thought that was very interesting. I watched the whole first season in a day and a half. I can't wait for season two to come out.

Brian Hemminger: Okay, let's talk baseball. You're on fire right now. I calculated and you have over 25 scoreless innings in a row and counting. Is that something you pay attention to? Can it become a distraction?

Juan Hillman: Last year, it was a distraction being my first year in Arizona and everyone's coming out swinging. The game sped up a lot and my focus wasn't there. I wanted to make sure this year I had everything right so I've tried to have a specific routine throughout the week and last year I didn't have any of that. I just went out and threw hard so my body wasn't in sync. This year, I've stayed focused on the batter in front of me. I'm aware of the streak, and I want to see how long I can keep that going, but my biggest motivation right now is just following up the great performances by Triston every start since I'm next in line after him. I just try to do the same, or at least hope to do the same.

Brian Hemminger: What's the routine that's helped you focus before games?

Juan Hillman: During BP (batting practice), the pitchers don't have to get there as early, only a couple hours before the game, I sit at my locker for a little bit and don't focus on the game at all, and that's like an hour or two hours before the game. When they're doing BP, I don't want to just sit in the AC the whole time and get all tight, I want to relax, so I go out there and sit in the dugout and watch the team or even the opposing team do BP.

I always call my mom before every game and talk to her as well. I play a little 8-ball pool game on my phone and when it's getting closer, that's when I start to lock in, listen to my music. I also get my stretch in before every start and me and my trainer have this one thing, like literally two minutes before I start stretching, I have to get on the table and I have get my whole body pulled. I just like it (laughs). That's my routine. Get pulled and get out of there. It's a weird routine, but it works.

Brian Hemminger: You brought up something interesting during an appearance on a podcast earlier this year about how you can't just overpower opposing hitters anymore, you have to out-think them too. Can you elaborate on that?

Juan Hillman: Well last year, I was just trying to locate my fastball and I was just trying to throw fastballs by hitters because that's what I was getting away with in high school games. At this level, that's definitely not gonna be the case at all. As you can probably see, I have less strikeouts and I'm not necessarily a big strikeout pitcher. I'm more of a "get ground balls" pitcher and I'm okay with that. I'm all about changing speeds, changing the eye levels, working the curveball in the dirt, fastball up or away, keeping hitters off balance. That's the main thing.

Brian Hemminger: How do you approach individual hitters when you're up there on the mound? Some guys I've talked to get angry, others are trying to hype themselves up. How about you?

Juan Hillman: My approach is always, I tell myself, "You're gonna get yourself out. Either I'm striking you out or you're hitting a weak pop up or a ground ball." Even a deep fly ball will probably be caught because we have some of the fastest outfielders in the league. If they hit a ball up in the air and think it's a hit, it's generally not a hit. I have a ton of confidence in my change-up and I know if I throw it good, they won't hit it. I just try to do my best to stay positive out there and you have to feel you're better than your competition because if you don't, bad things can happen. You have to stay mentally prepared and ready to compete.

Brian Hemminger: Do you have any pitches that you just throw for fun, that you'd never throw in a game?

Juan Hillman: My main three pitches are fastball, change-up and curveball. That's what I focus on in my throwing routine, but I do try a knuckleball every once in a while while warming up.

Brian Hemminger: The starting rotation for Mahoning Valley, especially the top four with you, Triston McKenzie, Micah Miniard and Aaron Civale, is probably the best in the entire New York Penn League. Do you feed off their performances a bit?

Juan Hillman: Oh yeah, we want to be the best pitching staff in our league. Even if someone goes out there and doesn't have their best stuff, we just try to pick them up the next start. It's good to see everyone come together, especially seeing the work paying off that we put in during the offseason and in Spring Training. It's a great feeling. We're trying to get better day by day.

I love the team down here. We're finally starting to click and gel together and we're finally starting to put some runs on the board after a rough first two weeks. We had a game yesterday where we were down two to nothing and we probably would have lost that game two weeks ago, but instead, we rallied and came back and won 3-2. That was a huge step for us.

Brian Hemminger: Do you have any specific goals or expectations for yourself that you'd like to accomplish this year?

Juan Hillman: My main goal is just to stay focused and continue to do my routine because that's new to me. Whether I feel great out there or I'm having an off day, I want to be consistent with my command and keep working to induce soft contact and keep getting guys out and keep pounding the strike zone.

Brian Hemminger: You've brought up in the past about the importance of being a role model. What's your motivation for that?

Juan Hillman: I learned a lot from Nick and Mr. Gordon, coming from where I came from with no baseball experience, and being where I am now, I'm just so grateful for it and I want to continue to be blessed and look out for others. I'm very thankful to have the people in my life that I've had and to have this opportunity to make it to the big leagues and that's why I want to be a role model.

You can follow Juan on Twitter @RealJuanHillman.