Can Johnny Hellweg Succeed In 2014? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Long-time readers know my feelings about right-hander Johnny Hellweg. He has an intimidating frame on the mound and a fastball that can be overwhelming. He has struggled in his brief major-league debut this season, but I absolutely adore his potential. He’s one of the few pitchers in the Brewers’ system that possesses a mid-rotation ceiling. If everything develops well, he could be an Andrew Cashner type of starter.

Right now, though, that’s all it is. Potential. And when attempting to carve out realistic expectations for 2014 performance, I’m not sure it’s wise to bank on heavy progression for Hellweg. Instead, it’s perhaps better to determine whether he can find success at the major-league level with his current repertoire/skills, and any unexpected progression is merely icing on the cake.

The Brewers recently named Hellweg the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in the minor-league system. He posted a 3.15 ERA in a very difficult Pacific Coast League, and he reportedly touched triple-digits with his fastball multiple times throughout the year. Those are things we should absolutely be excited about.

Of course, the most significant concern surrounding Hellweg is his lack of command. He’s walked 7.06 batters per nine innings in five starts (six appearances) with Milwaukee, and he also dished out too many free passes in Triple-A Nashville, compiling a 5.80 BB/9. For comparison, there have been zero¬†qualified starters with a higher walk rate than what Hellweg had in Triple-A (not to mention Milwaukee) since the ’94-95 strike. That would lead one to believe a pitcher cannot walk that many batters at the major-league level and find success.

It’s deeper than that, though. Randy Johnson walked 6.79 batters per nine innings in 1991 and managed to post a 3.98 ERA, but he struck out a massive 228 batters in only 201.1 innings. Guys can limit the overall damage if they possess the ability to miss bats at an elite rate — something Hellweg has not done this year. His 6.37 K/9 strikeout rate in Triple-A is already below-average, and his paltry 2.08 K/9 in the majors is borderline ridiculous.

Hellweg clearly has the repertoire to miss more bats than he’s done in his five starts with the Brewers, so let’s focus on his Triple-A strikeout rate instead. It represents 125.2 innings of data, so the sample size should have some stability. With the below-average strikeout numbers and the lofty walk totals, the right-hander owned a 1.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) with Nashville. That’s not workable.

Since the turn of the century, there have only been 11 instances in which a pitcher threw enough innings during a single season to “qualify” and had a worse K/BB ratio than the one Hellweg posted in Triple-A this year:

Year Pitcher Team K/BB ERA ERA-
2003 Nate Cornejo Tigers 0.79 4.67 106
2002 Mike Hampton Rockies 0.81 6.15 127
2004 Kirk Rueter Giants 0.85 4.73 111
2003 Damien Moss Giants 0.86 5.16 122
2000 Jimmy Haynes Brewers 0.88 5.33 115
2004 Kazuhisa Ishii Dodgers 1.01 4.71 113
2006 Steve Trachsel Mets 1.01 4.97 114
2008 Daniel Cabrera Orioles 1.06 5.25 118
2001 Jimmy Anderson Pirates 1.07 5.10 117
2004 Miguel Cabrera Blue Jays 1.08 4.85 102
2000 Jamey Wright Brewers 1.09 4.10 88

Success was clearly uncommon among these starters. Only Jamey Wright posted an above-average ERA in that respective season, but no one would consider him a pitcher worth replicating. Though, to be fair, he has improved as he’s aged and has put together a few solid seasons as a reliever.

We can talk about Hellweg’s potential all day. There’s a lot to like about the lanky right-hander. In terms of next year’s performance, though, he’s going to be working uphill unless he can dramatically cut his walk totals or start to induce more swings-and-misses. History hasn’t been kind to those who have posted strikeout-to-walk ratios like the one he compiled in Triple-A this year — and that’s not even taking into consideration the increased talent level in the majors.

I mentioned Andrew Cashner in the first paragraph, and I’m beginning to think an Andrew Cashner-esque career trajectory may be the most beneficial for Hellweg. Cashner pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in his first three big-league seasons before transitioning to the starting rotation on essentially a full-time basis this year. He still struggled as a rookie, but it allowed him to develop his repertoire at the major-league level and adjust to major-league hitters in a lower-leverage position. It set the stage for his future career as a starter.

That could be the best-possible scenario for Johnny Hellweg. I love his potential as a pitcher. He’s difficult to handle when repeating his mechanics, and he can dominate guys with just his plus-fastball. He’s just not ready to take the ball every fifth day as a starter. We’ve seen that this season, and history illustrates he will not find success with his current skill set. The organization would be wise to put him in a position to succeed in 2014, which would mean putting him in the bullpen and allowing him to get his feet under him while letting his stuff play up in shorter stints. The command issues will still be present, but the organization would have to be willing to commit to him in the role and ride out the rough patches.

If the Brewers bring back Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse, they’ll have a decent top-four starters with Gallardo, Lohse, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada. They would only need a fifth starter, and there are plenty of options to fill that role without compromising the development of Johnny Hellweg. Put him in the bullpen, and if his command and repertoire can progress in the next year or two, then transition him to the starting rotation. At this point, it’s best for both parties.

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