There’s no question that when Johnny Hellweg was promoted in late June to take the place of Alfredo Figaro in the revolving circus that was the Brewers 2012 starting rotation, he simply was overmatched.
In a game that also featured Pittsburgh Pirates former first-overall draft pick Gerrit Cole, Hellweg was roughed up to a line of seven runs (five earned) on six hits and two walks in only 1.2 innings. Hellweg actually retired the Pirates in order in the first, then ten of 12 batters faced the next inning reached base, leading to seven runs.
After four apperance (three starts), Hellweg posted a 10.98 earned-run average, mainly due to command that was so poor that I almost don’t want to write it out: three strikeouts and 13 walks in 10.2 innings. After that rude introduction to the majors, the Brewers sent Hellweg back to AAA, where he posted a promising season.
As the season went on, though, Hellweg was able to make amends to a shaky start. He finished with a 1-4 record, 7.06 FIP, 6.81 FIP, 2.64 K/9, and 2.15 WHIP. Overall, those numbers are not very good. Actually, they’re numbers you want to hide from if they come knocking at your front door. Hellweg’s stronger second stint with Milwaukee in September brought those numbers down significantly, though, which was a good sign. He spanned 20 innings over 4 starts during that month, surrendering 10 runs and stranding a heckuva lot of more runners.
As a prospect, the 6-foot-9 Hellweg’s major league potential hinged on his ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun. Since then, however, he has taken his attention away from looking to strike out every hitter to actually looking to make batters put the ball in play.
The problem for Hellweg hasn’t come when hitters make contact, though. Over his time in the minors and with the Brewers, Hellweg owns a HR/9 of 0.387. The real struggle comes when he begins walking batters left and right, which has unfortunately been Hellweg’s ultimate downfall.
The best BB/9 ever posted over the course of an entire season–minors or majors–was 4.4 in 31 innings between rookie ball and low-A with the Angels in 2009. Of the 737 batters he faced during the 2013 calendar year, Hellweg walked 109, or almost 15 percent. Hellweg’s future as a major leaguer rests on his ability to gain command. No longer throwing consistently in the upper-90s (his average two-seam and four-seam velocities were 93.8 and 94.4, respectively) and lacking a dominant breaking ball (features slightly above average movement on his curve and a nothing-too-special changeup), Hellweg can’t be affording to walk a batter almost every inning statistically.
There’s reason to believe that he can be effective in 2014 as a bullpen arm, however.
With the Brewers recent acquisition of Will Smith, Hellweg’s chance at cracking the starting rotation took a major shot. The Brewers announced they will bring Smith to Spring Training as a starter and go from there. In addition to the trade for Smith, names like Tyler Thornburg, Hiram Burgos, Tom Gorzelanny, Alfredo Figaro, Mike Fiers, Donovan Hand and Jimmy Nelson all started for Milwaukee at some point in 2013 and are back for the upcoming season (though it’s more than likely Gorzelanny, Figaro, and Hand are in competition for the bullpen).
His command serving as the variable in the equation, Hellweg’s frame and fastball suit him well as an option for the bullpen. Long-term, Hellweg still projects to be a starter and I have no doubts that we’ll see him toeing the rubber to open the game at some point this season, but his best shot at the Opening Day roster, at this point, is through the bullpen. Right now, it’s shaping up to be a group anchored by Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler with the rest up for grabs. It’s one of few positions with plenty of question marks surrounding it on a Brewers team returning most of its players from a 74-win team.
As for the prospect of Hellweg pitching out the bullpen, I can’t quite say it’s a proposition that I am all too comfortable with. The Brewers have made it clear their intentions to include Hellweg in the future starting rotation. Giving the 25-year-old a bit more time in AAA isn’t out of the question, particularly considering Hellweg didn’t raise too many eyebrows in his brief stints with the Brewers. Short term, however, Hellweg in the bullpen is a move the Brewers could make if they feel the need for a power right arm and Smith or another arm takes on the fifth starter role.
It’s not clear where Hellweg will start the season–not only whether in the bullpen or the starting rotation, but also between Milwaukee or Nashville–but we haven’t seen the last of the hard-throwing right hander.
There’s plenty of room for improvement going forward with Hellweg.