MILWAUKEE — When a pitcher is 6-foot-9 and throwing 96 mph, the first thing that comes to mind is strikeouts and lots of them.
Milwaukee Brewers rookie right-hander Johnny Hellweg is 6-foot-9 and throws that hard, but he isn’t a strikeout pitcher; not anymore. In a concerted effort to pitch to contact, Hellweg has shifted his focus to trying to get outs earlier in the count with his power sinker.
“I can’t really compare him to anybody,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “Usually a tall guy like that isn’t throwing a sinker. You expect to see a Randy Johnson, four-seam gas. It has movement on it, he likes to pitch down in the zone and gets ground balls. He’s got a nice breaking ball. He calls it a curve, but it is in-between, a slurvy-like curveball.”
Hellweg’s overall numbers in Triple-A weren’t bad — 3.38 ERA in April and 3.86 ERA in May — but he was averaging 3.5 walks per start. Even with Milwaukee’s starting staff in disarray early in the season, Hellweg wasn’t given a chance in large part due to command issues.
Things changed in his final five Triple-A starts, however. Hellweg went 5-0 with a 0.82 ERA in those five starts, walking just 11 and striking out 17 in 33 innings.
“I just started trying to pitch to contact more,” Hellweg said. “I wanted to get deeper into games. We had a stretch where we didn’t have a starter go more than five innings for a while, so I kind of wanted to change that. I just kind of changed my approach — made myself a little more vulnerable, giving up hits if I had to. I think it’s worked out.”
Acquired by the Brewers from the Angels along with shortstop Jean Segura and minor league right-hander Ariel Pena in the Zack Greinke trade last July, Hellweg has topped prospect rankings in large part due to his eye-popping fastball.
Some have said he has the stuff to be a closer, but the Brewers want him to continue to
be a starting pitcher. Hellweg had to make the move on the fly, trying to shift his mindset from strikeout to finding outs earlier in counts.
“It was a learning curve, but it was a slow learning curve — it probably should have came to me a little earlier; pitching to contact is kind of how baseball is played,” Hellweg said. “It’s tough to grasp, but I think I’m starting to grasp it a little more every day.”
Roenicke feels Hellweg’s heavy sinker is the pitch that will allow him to be successful trying to pitch to contact.
“It should allow him to go deeper in the game and get some earlier outs,” Roenicke said. “Guys that strikeout people, to get them to the eighth inning sometimes is difficult. There’s nothing wrong with a first-pitch out every once in awhile.”
Ever since the shift in mentality occurred, Hellweg’s walks have come down. His natural stuff allowed him to work around a high number of walks in the minor leagues, but he needed to cut down on the free passes in order to find success with the Brewers.
“I think it comes with pitching to contact,” Hellweg said. “It makes the game a little bit simpler if I’m just trying to get ground balls every pitch. It makes it easier. I don’t have four chances to get the guy out; I have four chances to throw the pitch I need. So that definitely simplifies the game a little bit for me.”
Early on, Hellweg has struggled in the big leagues. His first start certainly didn’t go according to plan, as he allowed five earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, walking two and striking out one. After a perfect first inning, Hellweg allowed seven runs, only five being earned, in the second inning, leaving with his team down 7-3.
Because of short starts by the starting staff, Roenicke needed to give Hellweg an inning of relief in Monday’s 10-5 loss in Washington. Hellweg allowed a one-out double to pinch-hitter Chad Tracy and then walked Denard Span. An error by Segura allowed Tracy to score, while Ryan Zimmerman plated Span with a two-out RBI single.
Though he allowed an earned run, a walk and two hits in his one inning of relief, Hellweg’s outing was called “much better” by Roenicke after the game.
The next challenge comes in his home debut Friday against the New York Mets. He’s pitched in Miller Park just once before, as he pitched for Cedar Rapids against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in a minor league game in Milwaukee in 2010.
“We’ll have to see when he loses it and starts walking people, what’s going on?” Roenicke said. “Is he getting out of his mechanics? Is he panicking a little bit on the mound and that’s why he’s not throwing strikes? I’ll have to learn that part from what I see out here. Hopefully the catchers will see it before I do and get out there and take care of it.
“I think the first time a guy comes up and the first couple of years a guy is in the major leagues, the mental part is a lot more difficult than what they do physically. He’s got good stuff, there’s no question about it. Hopefully the nerves will be intact and he’ll do alright.”