Jeremy Hellickson
  • Durham Bulls
  • Jeremy Hellickson

DBAP/DURHAM—Jeremy Hellickson is evolving incredibly quickly, and in ways that can be difficult to see at first. In the first inning of the Bulls’ 6-0 shutout of the Rochester Red Wings on Sunday, Hellickson did what he usually does: throw pretty much all fastballs. By my count, in fact, all 16 of his first-inning pitches were four-seam heaters, and a few of them touched 94 mph on the DBAP radar gun. That’s a tick faster than he was throwing them a few weeks ago, when he was around 90-91 most of the time. He struck out two to end the first inning, and it was pretty standard first-inning Hellickson: get the fastball going, wait on the other stuff.

The other stuff started in the second inning, but it took a minute to recognize it. It looked like a slider, only harder. It was actually a cut fastball that veered left and clocked in at 85-87 mph. Hellickson had excellent command of the pitch—”I feel like I can throw it to righties and lefties now,” he said afterward—using it in tandem with his customary four-seam fastball, which settled back down to about 91-92 mph for the rest of his outing. He also threw a few two-seamers. The cutter, which Hellickson later estimated he threw about 15 times, gave the Red Wings another offspeed pitch to contend with beyond his curveball and changeup, both of which he started throwing in the fourth inning. What’s notable about the former is that Hellickson throws two curveballs, and they were both working beautifully on Sunday. The early-count, slow rainbow curve (about 72mph) dropped in for strikes, and the harder two-strike curve—which almost looks like a slider—had good swerve.

What’s notable about the latter, the changeup, is that last year it was Hellickson’s go-to out-pitch, to the point of occasional over-reliance. Now he uses it more sparingly, tactically rather than merely strategically, mixing it in with the rest of his pitches. These days, “I try to keep in my back pocket,” Hellickson explained, rather than flashing the changeup too much—were he still doing that, he’d be getting victimized by hitters, who would have adjusted to Hellickson’s habitual use of the pitch.

But Hellickson is the one making the adjustments; from the fourth inning (when Hellickson added the curve and change) through the seventh, the Red Wings had just two hits—they had four in all, each one a single—and one of those two was a bunt single by Dustin Martin. Hellickson went to only one three-ball count in seven innings, and as his outing evolved, he became hypnotically, almost metronomically efficient, despite working a bit more slowly than usual: He threw exactly 11 pitches in each of his last three innings, eight of the 11 for strikes in the fifth and sixth, and nine in the seventh. Only three or four balls all afternoon were hit hard by the off-balance Rochester lineup.

Hellickson ended each of his last three innings with strikeouts. His 89th and final pitch was a 93-mph four-seamer, right on the outside corner. It followed a table-setting changeup and froze Danny Valencia for a called strike three, his seventh strikeout of the game.

Mike Ekstrom and Joe Bateman finished Hellickson’s shutout with a scoreless relief inning each. The Red Wings never got a runner past second base; center fielder Justin Ruggiano made sure of that in the fourth inning when he threw out Valencia trying to stretch a single after Rashad Eldridge flubbed the ball in left-center field.

So when did Hellickson start throwing a cutter? “The day before my last start,” he answered.

Oh, okay.

More on the cutter, and then cutting to the chase, after the jump.

It’s fun to talk to Hellickson, who has gotten less shy as he has grown more comfortable with life in pro ball and the pesky sportswriters that accompany it. Although he’s no gabber by any means, the Silent Cyclone isn’t really so silent anymore. The Iowan gamely and affably answers questions with a characteristic Midwestern forthrightness that masks an impish gamesman. It was hard to believe he really threw a cut fastball for the first time right before his last start: His last start was a near no-hitter. In any case, there were hints that he was messing with the pitch early in the season.

More to the point, why did he start throwing it? “Well, I was working on a slider,” Hellickson said, “and it wasn’t coming along like we wanted.” The slider involves wrist action; the cutter is thrown just like a fastball but with a different grip (it’s Mariano Rivera’s signature pitch).

More gamesmanship: When I asked Hellickson about the two-seam fastball, whose apparent introduction into his repertoire Bulls’ broadcaster Neil Solondz mentioned between innings on Sunday, the young righty said, “I don’t throw a two-seamer, actually.” The he added: “But I threw a few tonight.” Oh. So, you don’t throw one, but you did? Last year, I compared Hellickson to a yogi, but maybe he’s closer to a Zen master, spinning koans. When will you throw a two-seamer? It’s thrown!

And if Hellickson is now throwing it, why? Because Bulls’ pitching coach Xavier Hernandez asked him to start working on the pitch. The 23-year-old Hellickson is both master and pupil. It’s a little like another koan, “Zhaozhou Washes the Bowl,” which I will slightly modify to fit your screen:

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal mastered your four-seamer?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl learn a two-seamer”, said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

This is all geeky pitcher talk, but it’s important to track how and why Hellickson has looked so good lately and deserves to win his second International League Pitcher of the Week award of the season. (It’ll probably go instead to Gwinnett’s Todd Redmond, who made only one start this past week: it happened to be a no-hitter.) [UPDATE: HELLICKSON WON THE AWARD THIS MORNING.] Much more importantly, Hellickson’s current altitude, if he maintains it, will soon force the Tampa Bay Rays to think long and hard about promoting him to the major leagues, or perhaps (much more doubtfully) using him as a trading stock.

Hellickson said after the game, a couple of times, that it was really impossible for him to say why everything’s been working so well for him lately. (Streaking Chris Richard, who homered for his eighth straight hit (!), echoed that thought from a red-hot batter’s perspective. “Baseball is a lot like blackjack,” the veteran first baseman said, noting both games’ notorious runs of fortune.) Hellickson’s I-dunno savant act is, like his newfound cutter, not what it seems: He is clearly working extremely hard to make himself a better, more complete pitcher. Sure, his raw talent is what enables him to get the hang of a cut fastball so quickly—there’s the little bit of mystery that separates him from lesser prospects—but note that he took to that pitch only after laboring unsuccessfully to command a slider. So much labor, so much thought, so much repetition, so much tinkering and experimenting and trialing and erring go into the blink-fast bursts that constitute baseball’s core action: the pitch and the swing. There’s a reason that, over the course of a lifetime, baseball fans can watch this deceptively simple, yin/yang duel thousands of times without ever getting tired of it: it’s endless hours compressed into a split second.

Oh—you wanna know what happened at the DBAP yesterday? Here you go:

The Bulls have had trouble scoring runs lately, averaging just 3.3 over their previous six games. But they got back to business with four home runs on Sunday. Two of those came courtesy of Elliot Johnson. Both were hit left-handed, and the first was a rather lazy opposite-field pop fly that found the friendly trade winds up in the late-afternoon sky and was carried just—just—over the Blue Monster. The second, two innings later, was a more convincing (if not exactly crushed) dinger yanked to right field. Jose Lobaton and Chris Richard hit the others, both in the second inning. They gave Hellickson an early 3-0 lead, and the game might as well have ended then. Comfortable and razor-sharp, Hellickson with a three-run lead was like a monk with a pound of rice: it may not seem like much, but it was a lot more than he needed.

Rochester starter Deolis Guerra allowed all six Durham runs, and it’s instructive to compare his outing with Hellickson’s. He wasn’t terrible by any means, surrendering just six hits in six innings, and he was around the plate throughout, just like Hellickson was. He had some decent off-speed stuff, and got seven swings-and-misses with his 92 pitches. Guerra walked only one batter, and that was Dan Johnson, the league’s leading hitter. (He also hit Johnson, perhaps intentionally, out of frustration right after Elliot Johnson’s cheap opposite-field homer. Johnson took umbrage, and home plate umpire Jon Merry issued a warning to both benches.)

The difference, though, was that Hellickson’s strikes were purposeful, aggressive and taut: in and out, up and down, harder and softer, and they operated in concert with pitches that were intentionally out of the zone in order to keep the Red Wings guessing, and guessing wrong. Guerra’s strikes were flat, some of his fastballs not really directed but simply thrown over the plate—mere concessions, offerings—and the Bulls’ veteran hitters guessed right and turned them around. Although the 35-year-old Chris Richard, like Hellickson, played innocent about his hot streak, he did admit to being “a little wiser” than he once was. On days like this one, the Bulls’ relative maturity—Deolis Guerra just turned 21, but he’s years younger than the 23-year-old Hellickson—carried the day. And it seems only a matter of time before Hellickson completes his minor-league apprenticeship and is ready for the majors.

Speaking of the day, and what it carries into (there’s a koan for you), these 5:00 PM start times are tough on hitters. Neither team did much of anything in the last couple of innings as dusk approached, combining for just one single; four of the last six Bulls struck out. It was getaway day and the game’s outcome was pretty much fixed by the middle innings, but the problem wasn’t so much psychological as circadian: by 7:00 PM the shadows had crept over the grandstand, that time of day when hitters struggle to see the ball, especially at the DBAP, which has no batter’s eye and, on crowded days, brightly-clothed fans wandering around on the outfield lawn. Chris Richard mentioned the difficulty of hitting in the waning daylight hours. There are five more late-afternoon ballgames scheduled at the DBAP this season. Just something to keep an eye on.

The Bulls are now 28-22, leading the South Division by 5.5 games, and, with a win Monday up in Scranton, can finish their bumpy May with a .500 record. Not that anyone is counting, especially the Bulls themselves: Charlie Montoyo barely even glances at the standings until just before Labor Day—if you want to see his eyes immediately check out of an interview session, just bring up the Bulls’ record—and Elliot Johnson shrugged off a question a potential 14-14 May with complete and total lack of interest. The Bulls are right not to bother with it for now; so much will change before the end of the season that you’ll barely even recognize the roster by then.

For now, I can tell you that I will see you again on June 8, when the Bulls return to the DBAP and host the much improved Buffalo Bisons, who took three of four from the Bulls in late April up by Lake Erie, for a four-game bovine showdown. I can also tell you—PAY ATTENTION NOW!—that the current starting rotation cycle of the Syracuse Chiefs would pit the Bulls against pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 baseball prospect in the whole entire world, on June 4. The chatter out there is that he will be called up to the majors before then and pitch for Washington that night, but if he isn’t, and if you have nothing else on your docket, tune in on the radio.

A few notes before I sign off:

* Injuries: Charlie Montoyo said after the game that Rays’ catcher Kelly Shoppach will join the Bulls Monday in Scranton on a rehab assignment. Shoppach had minor knee surgery (apparently a torn meniscus just doesn’t impress anyone anymore) and has missed about six weeks, during which John Jaso flourished in Tampa. It’ll be interesting to see what the Rays do when Shoppach completes the Triple-A stint—which by league rules cannot exceed 15 days—and is ready for the big leagues. Also, Tampa shortstop Jason Bartlett is day-to-day with a hamstring ouchie. Reid Brignac will probably take over for him, and if Bartlett has to go on the disabled list, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dan Johnson get called up to swing his lefty power bat off the bench. He would have to be added to the Rays’ 40-man roster, but from what I can tell, they only have 38 players on it. (More about Dan Johnson’s possible return to the majors below.)

* Additions and Changes: FNG J. J. Furmaniak got his first start as a Bull. He played second base, was 0-4 with a strikeout, and handled all six of his chances cleanly, including the last four of the game. Angel Chavez, who has been dodgy in the field recently, moved back to third base, his natural position. Dan Johnson was the designated hitter. Elliot Johnson played shortstop, his favorite (and most customary) position.

* LollygaggersSlumpers: Desmond Jennings got a scheduled day off; he is 4-40 over his last 10 games, and his average has plunged nearly 100 points. Fernando Perez was in right field and went 0-3. He has struck out nine times in his last 20 at-bats, has drawn just one walk in the last three weeks (he has only nine all year in 172 plate appearances), and is hitting .111 since spraining his ankle a few weeks ago at the DBAP while diving back into third base on a lineout. Coincidence? I hope A) not, and B) that the ankle heals up quickly and Perez starts hitting again. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with the ankle, as he’s running well in the field and on the basepaths. Justin Ruggiano fanned three times on Sunday, giving him 13 Ks in his last seven games against only one walk. His batting average was .330 when he hurt his bicep on May 2; now it’s .296. Do we need to worry, or is he just in a little depression?

* Trade Idea! On Saturday, left-handed first baseman Kendry Morales of the California Angels (what, they’re not called that anymore? Doug DeCinces isn’t still their third baseman? Whoa, what time is it?) suffered a freakish broken leg when he landed wrong on it celebrating a walk-off grand slam homer. It was a truly demoralizing moment. On Sunday evening I had this thought: Hey, the Tampa Bay Rays have two power-hitting left-handed first baseman playing really well in Durham right now. Any chance that they want trade Dan Johnson (or, less probably, the much older Chris Richard) to the Angels for some hot prospects? They already pillaged three last year, including Sean Rodriguez, in the deal that sent Scott Kazmir to Anaheim. Not likely to happen, but I’m just sayin’.

Seeya soon!