When he signed on for $1.3M and a second season in Washington, D.C. in the week before Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reported to West Palm Beach, FL for the start of Spring Training, Jeremy Hellickson immediately became the frontrunner for the fifth spot in the Nats’ 2019 rotation.
Hellickson said he told the Nationals he thought he showed enough in 2018 to get the spot again.
“I haven’t been told much,” Hellickson said when asked if he’d discussed what role he would fill with the team.
“The big thing for me was I didn’t really want to come into camp and compete for a job again,” he explained. “I feel like I’d proved myself enough last year where I didn’t have to do that. That was part of the dialogue when we were talking, so that’s where we kind of left it, but I haven’t really heard much after that.”
“For me, he’s got the upper hand right now,” manager Davey Martinez said.
“He’s pitched really well for us, I mean he really has,” Martinez continued. “But, that doesn’t mean, like I said, we’ve still got two months before Opening Day or whatever, so I want these guys to come out and compete. [Erick] Fedde, Joe [Ross], Henderson [Alvarez], and they all understand that and they all know that.”
Hellickson, 31, posted a 3.45 ERA, a 4.22 FIP, 20 walks (1.97 BB/9), and 65 Ks (6.41 K/9) in 19 starts and 91 1⁄3 innings for the Nationals last season, after signing late in Spring Training.
He missed time with hamstring and wrist injuries, with his season cut short by a recurrence of the right wrist issue when he returned to the mound following a month-long Injured List (IL) stint between mid-August and mid-September.
He told reporters upon arriving at the Nats’ facilities this year that he had hoped he would come back to the Nationals all along.
“I was always hoping I would,” Hellickson said. “It wasn’t looking like it early in the offseason.
“There wasn’t a whole lot going on. But I started talking to [GM Mike Rizzo] towards the end of the offseason. I was hoping I’d be back, and it ended up how I wanted. I’m just happy to be back.”
Noting that he’d struggled the third time through the lineup in recent years, the Nationals rarely let him face the opposition a third time last season.
He was strong the first two times though, with a .190/.245/.291 line against the first time through, and a .212/.265/.393 line against the second time.
Hellickson said he wants to try to find a way to go deeper in his outings this season.
“I don’t really look at myself like a five-inning pitcher,” Hellickson said. “I’ve been going 6+ innings my whole career till last year. I could have done that plenty of times.
“I was out of there 5 1⁄3, 5 2⁄3, 75 pitches, so...
“It’s tough to go through the lineup three times. Those guys are really good. I mean, I don’t know, there can’t be a lot of pitchers that have great numbers the third time through, so hopefully I get stretched out a little bit this Spring and I’m able to do what I’ve done in the past.”
Martinez said it will, obviously, also be helpful in terms of saving the bullpen if the starter can stay out there longer.
“For me, I think with Hellickson you’re going to have to push him,” the manager said.
“There was some days — he goes through five innings really, really well, and then he would get to that sixth inning and everybody makes a — but I believe we’ve got to look at some things with him and whether he falls in a pattern or things of that nature, but I do believe that he can pitch in the sixth or seventh inning, especially when he’s going really well, and there’s going to be days where he’s going to need to do that, give our bullpen a little breather.”
The shorter outings, Martinez explained, had a predictable domino effect on the relievers last season.
“There’s no doubt about it, and the one thing too for Hellickson — when he does get up to that 85-90 pitches, his next outing, that’s when you’ve really got to be conscious of — he might not be able to get up that far, but if he can give you five — I remember last year he was at five innings at 62 pitches, and everybody was — ‘Third time around the order!’ I’m like, ‘He’s got 62 pitches.’
“So we’re going to have to get over that. He’s conscious of it, and he wants to do better and he’s really confident about, ‘Hey, I can pitch into the sixth or seventh inning.’ We’ll see what happens.”
Making his first start of the Spring on Wednesday afternoon, Hellickson worked around a one-out walk in the top of the first.
After Washington went up 1-0 in the bottom of the inning, the veteran righty worked around a one-out single to complete two scoreless on 30 pitches total.
“I felt really good,” Hellickson told reporters after the outing.
“Was pretty humid out there, so it was good to work through that, but I thought my stuff was good. Probably could have done without the four-pitch walk. But other than that, I thought everything went pretty well.”
His focus in the outing was working on a number of things, including a new quick pitch.
“Wanted to get a few of those in,” he said. “Other than that, it was just like the regular season. Try to get ahead, get some quick outs, just pitching really like it’s a real game, throwing everything, but yeah, the main things were just getting strike one and just pounding the zone.”