Even At 6-foot-9, Johnny Hellweg Has Room To Grow
TEMPE, Ariz.—With their 16th-round draft pick in 2008, the Angels got a prospect with upside—in more ways than they realized.
"My nose would be growing like Pinocchio's if I told you I saw this coming," said Angels scout Tom Kotchman, who kept tabs on amateur righthander Johnny Hellweg four years ago.
It's an apt metaphor because Hellweg has been growing at a startling rate, both physically and more recently as a pitcher.
A native of greater St. Louis—O'Fallon, Mo., to be exact—Hellweg had shown enough ability at St. Dominic High to be a 46th-round pick of the Marlins in 2007. That despite pitching only one inning as a senior after having surgery on his right elbow to shave down a bone spur.
Hellweg didn't sign with the Marlins, opting instead to play a season at Florida CC in Jacksonville. He already was 6-foot-4 when the Marlins drafted him, but when the Angels selected him a year later, Hellweg had grown to 6-foot-7.
By the time he was assigned to high Class A Inland Empire last spring, Hellweg was pushing 6-foot-9, which is a mark he says is just a centimeter or so short of this spring.
"When you see a guy at 6-foot-6 with that stuff, it's a very interesting package," Kotchman said of watching Hellweg in junior college. "He had a loose arm. He had great stuff. The question is: Is he going to harness it? When is he going to harness it—if he's able to harness it?
"The weird part of it is when I saw him at spring training (in 2009), he was sitting on a golf cart. He got up and I said, 'Did you grow?' "
Hellweg, whose father is 6-foot-4 and mother is 5-foot-7, said he thinks he has topped out "finally" at age 23.
"I think I'm done growing and starting to realize how long my arms are," he said. "They're going to be the same length every day."
That wasn't something Hellweg could take for granted while going through such a late growth spurt.
"Some mornings I'd wake up and I'd feel like the ground looked weird, felt like my arms had grown more every day," he said. "For me, one of my life goals—my No. 1 thing—is not to be a tall, awkward, dorky guy. I don't want to be that guy. I've seen those guys and I'm (thinking), 'You're giving us a bad name.' I want to be the most coordinated, able to do anything, not shy away from anything because I'm tall and gangly.
"I don't feel it's an issue now. I feel I'm very coordinated. I try to be in everything I do."
It has taken time for that coordination to click on a pitcher's mound. In Hellweg's first three professional seasons, the Angels kept him in a bullpen role, limiting his innings (97 in all) for fear that pitching too much might put excessive stress on his growing body. His fastball had grown with his body, peaking in the high 90s. Still he remained in the bullpen, and still he had struggled to throw strikes when he started last season in the California League.
Shifted to the rotation in June, things began to click. Hellweg had walked 129 batters in his first 122 innings as a professional. As a starter, though, he was a different pitcher, going 4-1, 2.12 in 14 starts while holding opposing batters to a .218 average. Most important, he struck out 80 and walked just 28 in 64 innings, while sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and mixing in a tough slider in the low 80s.
"Probably the first time Johnny Hellweg landed on my radar was last summer," said new Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, who served as the Diamondbacks' senior vice president for scouting and player development at the time. "All of a sudden we started getting encouraging reports on him and we were, 'Who the heck is this guy?' And you're getting, 'Big, tall drink of water. Lots of velocity. Doesn't quite know where it's going.'
"Then they moved him into the rotation and all of a sudden our grading system (approved). It's color coded, (so) the brighter the color, the better the player. Johnny's colors started getting a little brighter last year."
The move to the rotation allowed Hellweg time between starts to refine his delivery, and innings on the mound to repeat it. He said the change in roles also seemed to suit him mentally.
"As a reliever, I always had a problem grasping the concept that you don't always have to give max effort to get people out," Hellweg said. "I could throw the ball hard, so I felt I had to all the time. I know in the starter's role that I have to throw a lot of innings. For me, it was, 'All right, longevity.'
"I have to go out there, eat up innings for my team, put them in a good position to win. For me to do that, I kind of have to, not necessarily lay the ball in there, but give them a better opportunity than I had been. Try to make them mis-hit the ball, mis-hit bats a little bit. For me, it kind of evolved from that.
"Finally, I got a good routine and something I felt comfortable with. I knew I could go out there and compete every time. I kind of mixed the starter and reliever together, in a sense. I know I can throw hard when I need to."
Last year's success has resulted in another growth spurt, this time in Hellweg's confidence.
"It feels night and day different," he said. "Every time I'd go out previous to joining the rotation, I had to go out with the mindset of throwing out what happened last time, not even thinking about it.
"Once I got in the starter role, I kind of felt more and more every time I went out there that I was 'the dude,' I was the guy out there. It helps for sure, knowing for example when you get behind in the count that you got this guy out previously, had success in previous at-bats against him. It just gives you the confidence to throw that strike right there instead of your mind spinning because you walked the guy the previous time."
Hellweg's confidence and growth as a pitcher figure to be tested with a promotion to Double-A Arkansas this season, and the jump to Double-A is a tall order for any pitcher. For Hellweg, the Angels will be tracking the most elemental of skills for a pitcher: strike percentage, Dipoto said.
"You'd like to see a guy, as he makes his moves through the mid-level of the system to Double-A, really have a refined idea of where he's throwing the ball," Dipoto said. "There's more consistency with location. There's more consistency in repeating pitches. Johnny's development to this point has been a little all over, largely due to the fact that he's still growing into his body.
"If he's in the strike zone, he's going to be successful. To this point in his career, that's the hurdle he's trying to overcome.
"He made so much progress last year. We want to build on that progress. To me, it's all going to be about pounding that strike zone. We will stress that to all our kids, but if Johnny can pound that strike zone he's going to pitch for a long time.
"His upside is whatever you want it to be. I don't know that we know."