ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—Jeremy Hellickson does at least look like a rookie.
The 24-year-old’s baby face, his preferred wardrobe of jeans and a T-shirt, his non-stop attachment to his iPad and his quiet Midwestern demeanor might be the only telling signs around Tropicana Field, where he easily could be mistaken for a bat boy, a clubhouse attendant or a front-office intern.
Because when Hellickson strode up the mound, there wasn’t any indication he was pitching his first full season in the big leagues. Certainly not the way he handled the supposed pressures of having to face the AL’s toughest teams (plus the NL finalists Brewers and Cardinals). Not the way he remained remarkably stone-faced on the mound regardless of the predicament. Not the way he managed his way through constantly tight games.
And, most obviously, not the way he pitched, posting a 13-10, 2.95 record with a .210 opponent average and 20 quality starts that were the best of all major league rookies.
“I know that he is (a rookie), but I don’t always process it that way with him,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I keep hearing it, and reading it on occasion, Rookie of the Year and all that stuff, and I’m like, ‘God, he is . . .That’s right. He is a rookie.’ I’ve said that to myself several times.
“There’s nothing about him that really reveals that he is.”
Hellickson laughs at those type of comments—he does have a sense of humor, albeit dry. Similarly, he shrugs off talk about his lack of emotion on the mound, so rare that when he does show some—such as after the Rays turned a triple play in the season’s penultimate game against the Yankees to keep their wild-card hopes alive—it becomes headline news.
“It’s how I’ve always been,” Hellickson said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just the best way I know how to control myself out there.”
“Precocious” is the word Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman uses. “His composure is off the charts,” he said. “And that’s before you even get to his physical ability.”
The Cool Hand Luke approach is part of the Iowa native’s success story. So too is the cautious way the Rays handled him as a 2005 fourth-round pick out of Des Moines’ Hoover High, stair-stepping him through their system despite stunning early success: 4-3, 2.43 ERA, 0.914 WHIP at short-season Hudson Valley in 2006; 13-3, 2.67, 1.087 at low Class A Columbus in 2007; 11-5, 2.96, 1.105 at high Class A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery in 2008; 9-2, 2.45, 0.886 at Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2009; 12-3, 2.45, 1.173 at Durham in 2010 before his early August promotion.
“I think it helps a lot,” Hellickson said of his slow rise through the system. “You know, we take our time in the minors, develop guys like you’re supposed to, not rush them. So, you know, once you get here, we’re ready for whatever comes at us.”
The Rays kept a close watch on Hellickson even after he won his first three starts last year, even more so when a potential move to the bullpen for the stretch run and postseason didn’t work out well.
The January 2011 trade of Matt Garza opened a spot in the rotation for Hellickson, but the Rays continued monitoring his innings, giving him an extra day’s rest 14 times, and more than that four other times, including a 15-day respite around the all-star break. Tampa also openly discussed shutting him down after 170-to-180 innings unless they got back in the postseason race. Including his Game Four start in the AL Division Series, Hellickson tossed 193 innings.
While the Rays were limiting Hellickson’s workload, they were also encouraging him to broaden his repertoire—which featured a fastball Maddon describes as “sneaky’ and a treacherous changeup—to include more curveballs.
The fastball was Hellickson’s primary pitch coming out of high school, and his command was obvious. Plus, Maddon said, with Hellickson’s easy delivery “it just jumps on the hitter.”
Then in his first full pro season at Hudson Valley, Rays minor league pitching guru Dick Bosman showed him the grip for a circle changeup, and Hellickson eventually mastered it. “When I got drafted I didn’t have one,” Hellickson said. “He introduced me to it, and then I just worked on it every year from there on and just got really comfortable with it . . . to the point it is now where I feel just as comfortable throwing that as I do my fastball in any count.”
This season, the next step was to get Hellickson to mix in more curveballs. Maddon mentioned it, pitching coach Jim Hickey worked with him on it and around midseason teammate James Shields also got involved, showing him a grip that yielded better depth, and the results were obvious given a post-break 2.64 ERA that was third best of all American League starters.
“I felt that he’s got a really good curveball,” Shields said, “it’s just that he wasn’t trusting it.”
The added confidence in his curve gave Hellickson the three-pitch assortment needed for success in the rigorous AL East. So did learning how to pitch against the type of relentless hitters he faced regularly.
“That’s the part that people really have to understand,” Maddon said. “Being a rookie pitcher is difficult enough, but then to be one here, having to play these other teams as often as we do, multiplies the difficulty factor.
“Because you’re not going to get a bunch of hitters chasing pitches outside the strike zone. You have to pitch within the strike zone. You have to be able to throw something other than a fastball in a fastball count for a strike consistently. You have to be able to calm yourself. You have to be able to focus. There’s so many different things every major league pitcher has to do, but it’s more difficult here.
“So for all those different reasons, when you get a young starting pitcher that does what he’s done here, it’s magnified, man. It’s just a little bit better than everywhere else.”
A look inside the numbers illustrates the challenge. In 10 starts against the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, Hellickson was 4-2, 3.84 with a 1.31 WHIP, 49 hits, 36 strikeouts and 31 walks in 61 innings. In 19 starts against 12 other teams—including the Tigers (twice), Rangers, Cardinals and Brewers—he was 9-8, 2.53 with a 1.08 WHIP, 97 hits, 81 strikeouts and 41 walks over 128 innings.
“He’s an extremely talented pitcher that has the ability to miss bats in the American League,” Friedman said. “He fit in really well to our rotation, and we expect him to be a big part of our future success.”
Hellickson’s 2011 performance was certainly a good indicator of the future—especially a .210 opponents average that was better than all but Cy Young favorites Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw—and came with some historical wrappings.
The last time an AL rookie had a lower ERA than Hellickson’s 2.95 was 1990, when Kevin Appier posted a 2.76 for the Royals. A rookie had not finished with Hellickson’s combination of wins, innings and ERA since 1980, when Britt Burns did so for the White Sox.
“He’s just different,” Maddon said. “You look at his face and you think, ‘Come on, this guy can’t be that good. He’s not that kind of experienced. He can’t have those kind of pitches.’ But he does. He just sneaks up on people. In a good way.”