Strong Start Not Enough to Keep Rays Phenom Jeremy Hellickson in Majors
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jeremy Hellickson learned a hard lesson about life in the big leagues on Friday night.
Although the Rays' young phenom continued pitching well -- he was in line for his fourth victory in four starts on Friday night before the the A's rallied for a 5-4 win against the Tampa Bay bullpen -- it wasn't enough to keep him in the rotation.
Or even in the majors.
Hellickson was optioned to Class-A Charlotte (Fla.) after the game because the Rays want him to get acclimated to working out of the bullpen for the stretch run. He was sent to Charlotte instead of Triple-A Durham because it's easier logistically.
Hellickson said he was a little surprised, even though manager Joe Maddon said the plan all along had been to move Hellickson to the bullpen when Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were ready to come off the disabled list.
"From the outside looking in it might seem strange, but from the inside looking out it's very much common sense," Maddon said. "We had planned on doing it this way. There is nothing he could have done to change that."
Not even post a 2.05 earned-run average in his four starts, including dominant performances in his first three.
Hellickson's fate was sealed hours before he took the mound on Friday night. Davis and Niemann had each pitched simulated games on that same mound, coming through in good enough shape for them to be penciled in to the rotation on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, in Anaheim.
"It might be tough for some people to swallow, but in terms of making the right decision, that's not that tough," pitching coach Jim Hickey said.
The Rays want to be careful with Hellickson's workload. He has thrown 134 innings so far this season, at Triple-A and the majors. His career-high, from 2008, was 152 innings. Last year he threw just 114. Hickey said the Rays follow an organizational philosophy that a young pitcher should not increase his innings by more than 20 percent. Even using the higher total from 2008, that would be a limit of about 180 this year.
"You just have to balance the health of the kid in the future with what we are trying to accomplish here at this time," Hickey said. "We are pretty well equipped to work around that. It's not like we are desperate to have him start, although it's certainly nice to have that option."
If it turns out that this was Hellickson's final big league start of 2010, he certainly made quite an impression.
One of baseball's most highly-touted pitching prospects for the past couple years, Hellickson had allowed just nine hits in 20 innings in his first three starts before the A's got seven hits against him in 6 1/3 innings on Friday. The A's were the first team to get more than two hits against Hellickson in one inning.
Hickey said Hellickson made an impression for what he did with the baseball and the way he carried himself on the mound.
Hickey and manager Maddon cited an example from Hellickson's Aug. 15 start against Baltimore, when he did not have his best stuff, but he kept his composure and found a way to get through six innings, allowing just one run.
"The thing I like the most is his makeup, and it was definitely demonstrated in his last start," Maddon said before Friday's game. "He kind of had to struggle through it, but he never panicked. Never got out of his normal routine. I saw him go behind the mound to gather himself and think about it, and by the end of the game he was throwing like he did the first two."
Hickey said Hellickson, a 23-year-old from Iowa, is "just a quiet Midwestern kind of blue-collar, lunch-pail, punch-the-clock" pitcher.
As for his stuff, it starts with a short, simple, textbook delivery. There are no quirks. No extra movement.
"He has a nice delivery that allows him to stay in the strike zone," Hickey said. "He doesn't lose the strike zone for five, six pitches at a time like a lot of young guys do."
Hellickson's fastball is ordinary, just 91-92 mph, but he can spot it to both sides of the plate, up and down. He also has an advanced changeup that he can throw when he's behind in the count. He can throw his curve for strikes or use it to expand the zone when he's ahead in the count.
In short, Hellickson has everything that you'd want out of a major league starting pitcher.
Even if the Rays don't want him to be one now.
With a rotation of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza, Niemann and Davis, Hellickson is going to have to live off the memories of his four-start cameo for now.
"I thought I pitched good," Hellickson said. "It was a lot of fun ... I had no idea what was going to happen. All I could do was go out and pitch. They (Davis and Niemann) earned the spot in the rotation and they deserve to be there."