Jeremy Hellickson Impresses | The Process Report

Jeremy Hellickson Impresses

Repeat this: it’s just one start.

You have to keep repeating that when watching a dominant performance from a pitcher, particularly when this is the first start of a pitcher’s major league career. It is just one start. Many pitchers have had great first starts and fallen apart. Many have had horrible starts where they looked terribly lost, and went on to have fabulous, competent careers throwing the baseball.

Just on the Rays’ staff you have a great compilation of the different avenues. In Wade Davis’ first start, he struck out the side in each of the first two innings and wound up with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9:1 through seven strong. David Price’s first start was ho-hum; he lasted a little over five innings while walking and striking out three batters and departing without a decision. In James’ Shields first start—back when he went by Jamie—he too faced Baltimore; he walked three, struck out five, and exited after five. Nobody remembers Matt Garza’s first start because he wasn’t a Ray. He lasted two and two-thirds innings against the Blue Jays, allowing two homers, walking two, and striking two out while giving up seven earned runs. Jeff Niemann debuted shortly after Evan Longoria, racking up six innings of one run ball versus the Orioles (they show up a lot) while striking five out and walking only one.

If you went solely from those starts, Shields would be below average, Price and Niemann would be average-ish, Davis would be elite, and Garza would be, well, out of the league. The point is, you have a mixture of good, average, and bad. It’s one start, but people are so quick to assume a small sample is correct when that sample is the only from which to pull from. That’s why people grow disappointed when a player has a phenomenal rookie season but slides down in subsequent years. That slide is not always a product of talent loss or ability decay; sometimes it is simply regression to the mean.

With that, enter Hellickson. He did not carry with him the hype of Felix Hernandez or the novelty of Stephen Strasburg. The closest thing to Strasmas or Felix Day was Erik Hahmann’s creation of “Helloween”—and that seemed isolated to the Rays’ fan base. Maybe because Hellickson’s fastball tops out around 94; or because he’s from Des Moines, Iowa— which, in theory should make for a good story, after all, Field of Dreams took place there—and there’s only so much mystery and intrigue about any Iowa export. Maybe it’s just because he’s in the Tampa Bay market. It doesn’t seem to be because of his own fault. After all, years of video game numbers in the minors should only endear folks to his abilities, not turn them away.

But you tell yourself, “It’s just one start.”

The very first thing you notice when Hellickson takes the mound is his height; unintentionally, although perhaps subconsciously. He stands 6-foot-1 and the Rays’ rotation is full of archetypical starting pitching bodies. Niemann is a monstrous 6-foot-9 that only looks small when compared to radioactively exposed lizards and misunderstood apes. Price is 6-foot-6, Davis is an inch shorter, and both Shields and Garza are 6-foot-4; each weigh around 220-to-225 pounds with the exception of Niemann, who weighs closer 260-or-265. Hellickson doesn’t weigh 200 pounds soaking wet while wearing three layers of clothing.

Throughout their history, the Rays have had very few “short” starting pitchers. Scott Kazmir, J.P. Howell, and Casey Fossum were all left-handers. Jae Weong Seo stood 6-foot-1 but weighed over 210 pounds; same story with Brian Stokes. Seth McClung and Doug Waechter were well-built men’s men, pitcher’s pitchers. So were Ryan Rupe and Bryan Rekar. You have to dig back to Victor Zambrano to find a short right-handed starter, and even he was listed over 200 pounds. Brandon Backe might be the closest and he didn’t last long. The 2000 season might be the shining star for short righties; with 5-fot-11, 175-pound Cory Lidle and similar in height and weight Juan Guzman both being around, if not active or useful.

So yes, the history of short right-handed Devil Rays can be written and duplicated several times over on a napkin or Post-It note. It doesn’t happen. Not in this organization, not ever. Yet, there’s Hellickson, taking the mound as a young, short, and successful right-handed starting pitcher. He doesn’t have far to go to be the best of that familia in franchise history. Perhaps that’s why it’s so noticeable; because to date, short righties die in this system quicker than polar bears in Florida.

That’s not just true of the Rays. Taller pitchers are more desirable for a number of reasons. They seemingly have better records of health. They have presumably better strides which leads to high velocity – or at least higher perceived velocity. They have the ability to put on more muscle and more stress on their frames. With the exception of the Cincinnati Reds, it’s hard to think of too many teams that embrace short right-handed pitchers. That’s just how it is.

Much like the height, the next thing you notice is about his pre-delivery ball placement, but only because the rest of the rotation does things an entirely different way. Think about Shields or Garza or any of the other starters’ delivery. Where do they keep the ball before going into their windup? In the glove, right? Hellickson does not, instead he always has the ball in his throwing hand and placed on his backside. No idea if there are any pros or cons to it. Maybe one could make the case that a really skilled and optically blessed batter could pick up the grip during the split second transfer between hand and glove, but that seems like a bit of a stretch.

His delivery itself is not the cleanest on staff. He’s not quite a jabber, but he’s not as smooth as Shields or Garza. All is quickly forgotten when he throws the ball. His command tonight was pretty good as it appeared he was squeezed a few times. Before getting to that point, though, how about his confidence? In the preview write-up I noted that scouts rave about his mental makeup and it looked to be on display tonight.

But you tell yourself, “It’s just one start.”

Maybe it was the small crowd that made him feel like this just another start at Durham Bulls Athletic Ballpark, or more likely he’s just a headstrong youngster. He threw each of his pitches whenever he wanted to. Jim Thome has the tenth most home runs in Major League history and Hellickson fell behind 2-1. Most young starters start nibbling, right? Hellickson threw his curve over the middle, almost daring Thome to swing. He’d do this later against Thome again, getting him to swing and miss at multiple pitches with two strikes.

That was the most impressive thing, I think. His willingness and his ability to throw whatever pitch whenever he wanted. The confidence he displays in his changeup is overwhelming. He’s the antithesis of Price, Davis, and Niemann upon their arrivals. He threw a little under 60 percent fastballs tonight, and it felt like fewer than that. The other young pitchers have come up heavily dependent on their heater in all counts; Hellickson? Not a thing. He used his command and control to throw it wherever he wanted, helping him to get ahead, but he also showed a willingness to throw his breaking or off-speed stuff for a strike.

The home run he allowed to Jason Kubel came on a curve. His fastball racked up five whiffs, his curve three; and his change was the breadwinner at six. The way he intertwined the pitches and sequenced them leads you to believe that this isn’t just the case of a rookie pitcher taking advantage of hitters unbeknownst of his wickedness, but a guy who can feast off unpredictability and won’t take failure too personally.

He worked away to lefties. He worked inside to righties. He’d throw pitches over the middle, he’d throw pitches low, high, wherever he wanted to really. Another poor tendency with young pitchers is their unwillingness to go inside on opposite-handed batters from fear of not going inside enough, and leaving a lollipop over the middle. Everything in Hellickson’s arsenal was on display tonight. Everything. We saw the fastball as a viable table setter. We saw the curve as a pitch batters will chase, but one they’ll also be caught looking at. We saw the changeup as a pitch guys will simply swing through. Everything. It was a wonderful and liberating experience.

But you tell yourself, “It’s just one start.”

The very first play of the night had Hellickson fielding a ball hit back to him. He scooped it up and delivered an accurate toss to first while smacking on gum. He’d field a tap out two batters later to end the inning. No problem, unlike how Garza, Price, and even Shields have occasionally made fielding errors on similar plays. Hellickson just reacted and delivered without any sense of looming importance.

In the dugout, he looked like he’d been there forever. He wrapped his arm with a towel during the bottom half of innings. Before he took the mound he’d say some words—probably a prayer—into his cap, then he’d head back out there. Even when coming in from the bullpen before throwing his warm-up pitches, he looked on to Jim Hickey’s advice with the indifference of a veteran hurler.

In the seventh, he was fighting a battle of fatigue and managerial nervousness. Joe Maddon had said before the game he expected Hellickson to go no longer than 110 pitches; he recorded the final out on pitch 107. His final line registered seven innings, three hits, two earned runs, two walks, and six strikeouts … oh, and 12 of his 18 balls in ply were on the ground. Sure, the Twins lacked Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, but they still had Jim Thome. They still had Denard Span. Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer were there, as was Jason Kubel. This lineup was not their best lineup, but it was a major league caliber one; and Hellickson did fine.

What we saw was basically a snapshot of the ideal Hellickson start. A snapshot taken by a high definition camera and printed on the shiniest of glossy papers; and yes, we should not get too high. It would be too painful for this to be a mirage or a false like a prosthetic leg that can be waved around as if authentic down the road. Just take it for what it is. A good start. But one start. No more of an assurance of good times ahead than a bad start would’ve been a time to purchase flood insurance for pending floods of upheaval.

But you tell yourself, “It’s just one start.”

And at first the words roll of your tongue without thought or effort. After the first inning, the tone was still strong. The fake projection kicked in after he sat down the first nine batters without effort. And eventually, you had to really feel the words out with your tongue. You had to sound them out, as if they were foreign, as if this were the first experience with those words, with this thought. Then you begin to whisper. By the seventh inning, though, those words didn’t hold the same meaning. You weren’t saying “It’s just one start” as a means to hold down optimism or negativity, but instead you were saying it in anger. In denial. Hellickson is not joining the rotation, so this is it. This is our sneak preview at the next big thing. It’s just one start.

It’s just one start.

And if the others are anything like it, may there be many, many to come for Jeremy Hellickson the Ray.



3 Comments

  1. staplemaniac wrote:

    As much as I want to contain my excitement, there are a couple of extra reasons (in my mind) for optimism.

    1. Command
    Often, young pitchers who have trouble can’t command their pitches, Hellickson showed outstanding command and is known for it.

    2. Plethora of pitches
    He isn’t some hot-shot lefty coming up living off of his 97 mile an hour fastball (<3 you though, Price). The movement is good enough on his fastball, and with great placement it's a good pitch. His change and curve looked really good as well.

    3. Demeanor.
    Again, this is based on reports on him from the minors, but he didn't look rattled or overexcited at all. An even keel will serve this kid (and the Rays) extremely well in years to come.

    P.S. This blog is already awesome, and it's rapidly becoming (in my opinion) the best place for Rays analysis, based on the past work of your writers. Psyched to see R.J. writing lots of Rays content again.

  2. […] our own R.J. Anderson reminds us, it’s only one start. But it’s one start backed up by a fantastic major league career and an absolutely ridiculous […]

  3. pmcy wrote:

    From what I hear scouts say he reminds them of Roy Oswalt. But I would say with his control, multiple pitches and size he reminds me of Greg Maddux.

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