ST. LOUIS — In his senior year at St. Dominic High, Johnny Hellweg accomplished more as a 6-foot-4 right wing on the soccer team than as a pitcher on the baseball team.
My, how times have changed.
Since his last year at the O’Fallon, Mo., high school in 2007, Hellweg has sprouted five inches and he long ago gave up soccer. “I grew out of the soccer body,” he says. “It was fun, though. It definitely got me coordinated for baseball.”
A bone spur cost Hellweg virtually all of his senior year of baseball at St. Dominic, but in the lone inning he pitched, he touched 90 mph and earned a “pat on the back” 46th-round pick by the Marlins. He opted instead for a year at junior college in Florida, after which he was drafted by the Angels in 2008.
Since then, Hellweg has grown more and more comfortably into his baseball body. Now standing 6-9 and armed with a fastball that he has thrown 100 mph, Hellweg has become one of the game’s more imposing pitching prospects. He recently was named the top minor league pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, which obtained him in 2012, as well as the Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Year after going 12-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 23 starts for Triple-A Nashville.
Called up to Milwaukee on Sept. 3, Hellweg, 24, won his first big league game last Saturday when he went six innings and gave up three runs against the Cubs.
Hellweg won’t pitch against his hometown team this week, but if the Brewers stick with their six-man rotation, he should start against the Cardinals next weekend in Milwaukee. That would be quite a thrill for guy who grew up a Cardinals fan and attended “five-10” games a season thanks to a family friend with season tickets.
“St. Louis is like a brotherhood for the Cardinals,” Hellweg said Tuesday inside the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. “It’s like you can’t not like them.”
Hellweg’s feelings for the Cardinals changed last July when the Angels dealt him to one of St. Louis’ NL Central rivals in the Zack Greinke trade, which is threatening to become one of the more one-sided deals in recent years. While Greinke’s stay in Anaheim lasted barely two months, the main chip coming to the Brewers, shortstop Jean Segura, 23, already has become an All-Star.
Hellweg’s performance in 2013 is making the trade look even more lopsided, though there was little indication of that at the start of his career. A 16th-round pick, Hellweg was sent to the bullpen in part because of an inability to throw the ball over the plate. In his first season at rookie ball, he walked 38 in 21 2/3 innings.
He spent the next two years stuck in the low minors before the Angels decided to try him as a starter. Something clicked, Hellweg said, and his career started trending in the right direction. He pitched well enough as a starter in the second half of 2011 to start the following season in Double A. After he was traded the Brewers used him mostly out of the bullpen, but a strong spring earned him a promotion to Triple A and a spot in Nashville’s 2013 rotation.
“I don’t think anybody thought jumping from Double A to Triple A, he would be pitcher of the year,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “After what he did, he’s definitely going to be one of the guys with a chance in spring training.”
Hellweg still needs plenty of work controlling an arsenal that features a grounder-inducing, 95-mph two-seam fastball. The Brewers say he has a simple delivery, but the taller one is, the more difficult to master any moving parts.
“It’s only my second year as a starter,” Hellweg says. “As it goes on, I know it’s going to get better and better.”
It’s not going to happen overnight. In his first call-up this season, Hellweg averaged more than a walk per inning over four appearances. In 10 1/3 innings, he walked 13 and allowed 13 earned runs. Against the Cubs last week, he dialed back the velocity a bit to pick up control, and walked only three.
Hellweg’s next start is scheduled for Saturday against the Reds, and a strong outing could help the Cardinals in the NL Central race. That isn’t his concern, of course. His focus these days is on getting the most he can out of his baseball body.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.