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June 27, 2013

The Call-Up

Johnny Hellweg

by Jason Cole and Bret Sayre

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The Situation: With starting pitcher Alfredo Figaro landing on the disabled list due to a strained oblique, the Brewers have recalled Hellweg from Triple-A Nashville. He’ll make his big-league debut on Friday against Pittsburgh. Figaro’s issue should sideline him until at least the All-Star break; while Hellweg may not be up permanently, he should get at least a couple starts. If you like big velocity (and who doesn’t?), I’d suggest tuning into Friday’s Brewers/Pirates matchup, as Hellweg will face Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole. Both starters will work mid-to-upper 90s and touch triple digits with their fastballs.

Background: A 16th-round pick out of the junior college ranks in 2008, Hellweg was a 6-foot-7 hurler who threw 90-92 mph at the time he was drafted. In the video interview shown below, the right-hander says he grew five inches between his late high school and early professional years. He now stands a towering 6-foot-9, and his velocity has bumped 101 mph in recent seasons.

Although Hellweg’s stuff improved, the late growth spurt led to repeatability and control issues; he had more walks than innings pitched in two of his first three pro seasons. He eventually worked his way into a starting role––and into prospectdom––as his control progressed. Following a strong first half at Double-A Arkansas last summer, he was dealt from the Angels to Milwaukee as part of the Zack Greinke trade. Hellweg immediately became one of the Brewers’ top prospects, ranked at no. 3 by Jason Parks entering this season.

The 24-year-old prospect currently has a 2.82 ERA through 76.2 innings this season, yielding just 55 hits. He has struck out 50 and walked 44. Despite the subpar K/BB ratio, Hellweg has shown much improved command over his last five starts, giving up three earned runs in 33 innings. He has worked deeper into games and thrown more strikes (61.6 percent in his last five starts versus 53.9 percent in his first nine) and fewer pitches per inning (13.4 vs. 16.2).

Scouting Report: Best known for his elite fastball, Hellweg typically sits 94-97 mph in starts, reaching up to 98-100 when needed. It’s easy 80-grade velocity. His fastball has explosive late tailing action that can induce ground balls and makes it difficult for hitters to square. Hellweg’s fastball is undoubtedly his money pitch; his hard curveball and changeup both show average potential but aren’t quite there yet.

The biggest question about Hellweg has rarely been his stuff––it’s the control and command. The righty’s long limbs make repeating his delivery and, in turn, commanding his arsenal a difficult task. In his May 5 start against Round Rock, he worked three dominant innings before falling out of his delivery and struggling to make the adjustment, leading to four walks in a five-hitter span.

Hellweg’s ability to adjust when his long arms have trouble synching with the rest of his body may ultimately determine his future role. For the time being, late-inning relief remains the best bet. But he’ll get plenty of chances to stick in a starting role, where he has a mid-rotation ceiling. Long-limbed pitchers like Hellweg can often take a little more time to develop.

Immediate Big-League Future: It’ll all come down to Hellweg’s fastball command and control, which has improved of late but has been inconsistent at best throughout his minor-league career. The numbers and lack of a plus secondary offering suggest that the righty may never be a strikeout monster in a starting role. But with his dominant fastball, he could be a difficult-to-hit ground-ball machine if he’s consistently throwing strikes.

Video Interview: Earlier this month, I caught up with Hellweg to discuss his late growth spurt, his delivery, and his recent Triple-A success. —Jason Cole

Johnny Hellweg, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers from Jason Cole on Vimeo.

Additional in-Game Video:

Johnny Hellweg, RHP, Nashville Sounds (5/5/2013) from Jason Cole on Vimeo.

Fantasy Impact: It’s fun to watch a player whose skill set we think we know well make his major league debut, but the ones who could completely run the gamut of potential outcomes are even more entertaining. Hellweg falls into the latter of those two groups. We're not sure how long he'll be up, but it looks like he'll have at least a couple of starts to prove that he can hold his own at the big league level.

The safe bet is that Hellweg is a reliever long term, but the book has not yet been closed on his career as a starter. As Jason mentioned, long-limbed pitchers tend to have very interesting (and slow moving) career arcs, so I would not be surprised in the least if Hellweg bounced around for a couple of years before reeling off three to four months of nearly elite performance in the majors. Of course, the type of league you’re in will dictate how interested you should be in this sort of profile.

In redraft formats, Hellweg is an interesting flier in NL-only and very deep mixed leagues (more than 16 teams). He can keep the ball on the ground with his heater, which should help him out in a home run friendly park, and pitching in the NL Central should afford him an attractive schedule. I'd be comfortable spending $3-5 of FAAB on him in NL-only formats, just for upside alone. In dynasty formats, Hellweg makes for a great flier because even if starting doesn't work out, he could be a potential closer down the road. He comes with a metric ton of risk, but there's no lack of potential reward here. And when you're looking for that last guy on your bench or in your farm system, Hellweg is exactly the type of player you should be targeting, rather than a player who might top out at being barely above replacement level for your league. —Bret Sayre

Jason Cole is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here
Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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