See also: What Hellickson Learned Along The Way
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—Like any precocious student, Jeremy Hellickson was ready to graduate.
He’d been a gifted kid who stood out wherever he went. He earned praise from instructors for his ability to think two steps ahead of the rest of the students. He’d gotten good grades year after year, and he aced his final exam.
So it should have been a shock to find out that he was being held back.
But it wasn’t that much of a surprise for Hellickson. It’s just the way the Tampa Bay Rays operate.
“Around here, you don’t graduate to the big leagues. You earn your way,” Triple-A Durham pitching coach Xavier Hernandez said.
In almost any other organization, going 6-1, 2.59 in nine Triple-A starts—capping off a 57-20, 2.73 record in five minor league seasons—would have been enough to lock down a job in the big league rotation. But the Rays do things a little differently.
When David Price was dominating hitters in the World Series in 2008, little did he know that he’d begin the 2009 season in Triple-A with orders to improve his fastball command and his changeup. Jeff Niemann, the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, spent two seasons in Triple-A learning how to succeed on days when he lacked his best stuff. Wade Davis spent six years in the minors before the Rays deemed him ready for the rotation.
|1981||Mike Marshall, 1b, Dodgers|
|1982||Ron Kittle, of, White Sox|
|1983||Dwight Gooden, rhp, Mets|
|1984||Mike Bielecki, rhp, Pirates|
|1985||Jose Canseco, of, Athletics|
|1986||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Mets|
|1987||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Mets|
|1988||Tom Gordon, rhp, Royals|
|1989||Sandy Alomar, c, Padres|
|1990||Frank Thomas, 1b, White Sox|
|1991||Derek Bell, of, Blue Jays|
|1992||Tim Salmon, of, Angels|
|1993||Manny Ramirez, of, Indians|
|1994||Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees|
|1995||Andruw Jones, of, Braves|
|1996||Andruw Jones, of, Braves|
|1997||Paul Konerko, 1b, Dodgers|
|1998||Eric Chavez, 3b, Athletics|
|1999||Rick Ankiel, lhp, Cardinals|
|2000||Jon Rauch, rhp, White Sox|
|2001||Josh Beckett, rhp, Marlins|
|2002||Rocco Baldelli, of, Devil Rays|
|2003||Joe Mauer, c, Twins|
|2004||Jeff Francis, lhp, Rockies|
|2005||Delmon Young, of, Devil Rays|
|2006||Alex Gordon, 3b, Royals|
|2007||Jay Bruce, of, Reds|
|2008||Matt Wieters, c, Orioles|
|2009||Jason Heyward, of, Braves|
When it comes to pitching, the Rays like to take it slow. Other teams let their top pitching prospects skip Triple-A; the Rays see it as a necessary step.
“Triple-A is very important at finishing the development process,” farm director Mitch Lukevics said. “There are a lot of players who (played) in the big leagues in Triple-A. For a young guy it’s a great training ground.”
Hellickson added plenty of polish. He went 12-3, 2.45 for Durham this year, earning a late August promotion to the big leagues and our Minor League Player of the Year award.
And because he had plenty of time to perfect his craft, he had no problems making the jump to the big leagues. In his first four starts, he went 3-0, 2.05.
“What we can do with the type of patience we have is, they can experience almost everything that will come up in baseball in the minor leagues,” Lukevics said. “We can’t duplicate size of crowd and speed of the game, but we can duplicate most everything else.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. In the past five seasons, Tampa Bay has developed four-fifths of its current big league rotation. None is older than 28. The Rays produced so much starting pitching that another homegrown product, Andy Sonnastine, had to move to the bullpen after winning 14 games two years ago. Jason Hammel and Mitch Talbot pitched so well in Triple-A that other teams were eager to trade for them when they ran out of options. The Rays simply didn’t have room in their rotation.
Every team tries to produce pitching, but the Rays have extra incentive as a low-revenue team competing head to head with the Red Sox and Yankees.
“We wanted to put a great deal of emphasis on staring pitching in order to compete in the division,” Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said. “Our emphasis may be different if we didn’t play in this division . . . Every organization has different strengths. We feel like this is one of ours.”
To do that, Tampa Bay has made it a point to draft projectable pitchers with plenty of stuff, even if they don’t necessarily know how to throw strikes. Then they put them through a slow, step-by-step climb through the system.
It may seem to have been just a cruel twist of fate that forced the 23-year-old Hellickson to return to Triple-A. And it’s true that the Rays didn’t have any room in the rotation.
But it wasn’t only the lack of a spot. Talk to any pitching coach in the organization and they’re likely to parrot the phrase about how pitchers don’t just graduate on a schedule—they have to earn the right to move up. There is no such thing as punching a clock and advancing up the minor league (or major league) ladder. By holding Hellickson back, they ensured that when he arrived in Tampa, he’d be ready to go to work.
Hellickson was given a to-do list when he reported to Durham. That 2.59 ERA in 2009 wasn’t enough to impress.
“I don’t watch a guy pitch against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre,” Hernandez said. “In my mind he’s pitching against the New York Yankees.”
Hellickson could toy with International League hitters with his above-average changeup. And his big-breaking curveball would be more than enough to handle the Charlotte Knights. But against Mark Teixeira or Derek Jeter, the same curveball wouldn’t work.
“The big breaker was obvious when it left his hand,” Hernandez said. “A major leaguer could recognize it right away.”
Hellickson and Hernandez worked on adding a slider to see if it would be a better pitch for him than his curveball. The slider didn’t really take, but along the way he did tighten up and learn to camouflage his curveball—now big league hitters aren’t as likely to lay off it. And in trying to develop the slider, he learned to throw a cutter.
Once the cutter was mastered, Hellickson and Hernandez continued to tinker. He added a two-seam fastball to go with his four-seamer. With a 91-92 mph straight fastball that touches 94, Hellickson could succeed because he can paint the corners with it. But adding a two-seamer with movement gave him a chance to dominate.
Hellickson may have had to wait to make it to the big leagues, but it has ensured he’s better equipped to succeed for the long haul. If you are looking for the biggest reason the Rays are now among the elite in the American League, that willingness to wait may be the best explanation.
It’s the same formula that they applied to Davis, Price and Niemann before him. It may seem like Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, was an outlier, but it’s easy to forget that after an excellent stint in the Rays’ pen during the pennant race and postseason in 2008, Tampa started him back in Triple-A in ’09. Only after he’d added a new curveball (a pitch that has virtually replaced his slider) and sharpened his changeup was Price deemed ready to join the big league club as a starter. And even then, some Rays officials think the organization should have slowed Price down a little more.
Other organizations may look to move a pitcher to the big leagues as soon as possible. One prevailing theory states that each pitcher’s arm has only so many bullets, so you might as well use them in the big leagues. The Rays prefer to treat their pitchers like a 1982 Lafite Rothschild. Be patient and savor the results.
“It was very much a conscious decision (beginning) in 2006-2007. We resisted the temptation to rush our guys,” Friedman said.
But it wasn’t always that way.
From Rushing To Waiting
For nearly a decade the Rays were as dangerous to a young pitcher’s career as a 180-pitch outing. When the initial decision to sign expensive and aging free agents didn’t pay off in wins, Tampa Bay quickly became desperate for anything that could create a buzz. They needed talent—any talent—to try to provide reason for hope. So whenever a young pitcher showed some promise he was put on a plane for Tropicana Field.
“We had so many years (where) we struggled in the majors, (so) when there was a bright spot down below you wanted to bring him up and see if he could help,” said scouting director R.J. Harrison.
Jason Standridge, the team’s first-round pick in 1997, went 5-12, 5.30 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2001. The team promoted him to the big leagues anyway—with predictable results. Ryan Rupe, a sixth-rounder in 1998, skipped Triple-A and was in the big leagues after just 96 minor league innings; he finished his major league career with a 5.85 ERA. Seth McClung went 5-7, 5.37 in Double-A in 2002. That was good enough to skip Triple-A and head straight to Tampa Bay, where he went 17-24, 6.27.
In the most egregious example, Dewon Brazleton, the third pick in the 2001 draft, jumped from Middle Tennessee State to Double-A to the major leagues in little more than a year. Along the way, he made only one Triple-A start in 2002. Brazelton, though, logged plenty of time at that level in subsequent years. He spent most of the 2003 through ’07 seasons in Triple-A, never establishing himself as a major league starter.
In a rush to win, Tampa was ensuring it would continue to lose.
Following the 2005 season, the new Rays front office decided to stop the madness. Friedman and new big league manager Joe Maddon, hired that fall, were in agreement that long-term success was worth some short-term pain. More losses in the short term were acceptable if it would help the long-term development of a pitcher.
The Montgomery-Tampa Bay shuttle was cancelled. And the flights from Durham to Tampa become a whole lot less frequent.
The changes filtered down to the back lots of the Rays’ Florida complex. If you’re a high school pitcher in the Rays system, you can count on spending your first year (or more) in Rookie-level or short-season ball. The same rules generally apply to college pitchers, even relievers who often move quickly in other organizations. Organization sleeper Zach Quate went 1-0, 0.35 in 26 innings for short-season Hudson Valley last year, but he had to wait for 2010 to get a promotion.
When high school pitchers get to low Class A, they can feel comfortable signing a five-month lease. They aren’t moving up that year.
“It’s very rare for high school guys to not spend a full year in low (Class) A,” Friedman said. “We try to avoid having them get caught up in trying to make that transition to the next level. If they keep having success, all the better.”
The Rays’ patience means prospects percolate long after their contemporaries have moved on. In Hellickson’s case, he was pitching in the minors when Stephen Strasburg was still scarfing down Egg McMuffins in high school dugouts, but Strasburg beat Hellickson to the big leagues.
Hellickson wasn’t put on the slow track because he was raw, it was just part of the plan—even for relatively refined pitchers.
“When Jeremy came into the organization he had a very sound delivery,” Lukevics said. “He had a good arm action with plus stuff to begin with.”
Hellickson got in four appearances out of the pen with Rookie-level Princeton during his first pro season. A year later, he was sent to Hudson Valley. He led the league in strikeouts and was named the league’s top prospect, but he spent all of 2007 in low Class A Columbus anyway. A 13-3, 2.67 season wasn’t enough to convince the Rays to speed up his ascent.
He did get to jump from high Class A Vero Beach to Double-A Mongtomery during the 2008 season, but it took him two and a half seasons to get from Double-A to the majors.
It was a long refinement process, but it did ensure that Hellickson had faced most everything he would see in the big leagues on a smaller stage. He had lots of success, but when he got the call to Double-A back in 2008, he allowed nerves to get the better of him. In his first start he gave up five home runs in less than five innings.
“He was a young kid going to Double-A. He tried to overthrow,” Hellickson’s Double-A pitching coach Neil Allen said.
But he quickly learned his lesson.
“I remember getting pulled in the fourth, coming in and seeing (David) Price laughing at me,” Hellickson said. “I knew I just had to forget about it at that point, laugh about it and go on.”
By his next start, he had taken a deep breath and learned to not try to do too much. Lesson learned. This year when he came up to the big leagues, he kept doing what had given him success in the minors.
“When I saw Hellickson in the big leagues, I didn’t see anything different than I saw in Durham except he threw a few more changeups,” Lukevics said. “It’s good to see he took the lessons learned.”
He may have had to wait six years to make it, but Hellickson looks ready to pitch in the big leagues for quite a while.
Just like the Rays planned.