A few hours earlier, Manager Dave Martinez had declared what had been implied before and after the Nationals signed Hellickson last week: right-hander A.J. Cole will open the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter. As Hellickson threw four strong innings in his debut, Cole made his final start of the spring a few miles south, in West Palm Beach. He struggled. At one point, he walked the bases loaded. All told, the 26-year-old allowed three runs on five hits in four innings.
Nothing about what Martinez said will change because Cole had a bad day. He’ll get his chance in the rotation. Cole finished the spring with a 4.85 ERA in 13 innings.
But what happened a few miles north was hard to ignore. Hellickson looked strong in his four innings. Scheduled to throw 60 pitches, he threw nearly 70. The 30-year-old and former AL Rookie of the Year was never much of a power pitcher, but struggled last season when the gap between his fastball and change-up velocity shrank. Friday, Hellickson’s fastball sat from 89 to 91 while his change-up dipped was anywhere from 78 to 83.
“I saw a whole lot of 90s up there, and I wasn’t expecting that. I was thinking 87, 88,” said pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who also made the trip. “He sinks it, rides it, cuts it, changes it, curves it — it was a good mix. Good command.”
Hellickson threw 69 pitches over four innings, 47 for strikes — a favorable ratio for any pitcher, particularly a guy who had been throwing at Scott Boras’s complex in California until last week, and threw only one bleary-eyed bullpen before seeing big league hitters.
“You can’t really simulate the intensity of a game,” Hellickson said. ” … It was a lot different, but it felt really good.”
Hellickson said he wasn’t sure of what his next step will be, though with Cole starting the season as the fifth starter, there isn’t a huge amount of urgency. Before Friday, the team’s plan was to keep Hellickson in West Palm Beach until he could throw enough innings in minor league games to handle a big league start. At that point, he could take a turn in the majors and challenge Cole for the fifth spot if needed. That plan could change if Hellickson struggles to recover from Friday’s start, though he has no reason to believe that will be the case.
The righty’s delivery is not particularly taxing. He is not a power pitcher, and appears to have more of a throwing motion than power pitching delivery, staying upright throughout and finishing tall. His stuff has never been overpowering. He relies almost entirely on finesse, on taking a little on his fastball, on making things move. Hellickson would, in that way, be a different type of pitcher than any of his fellow veterans in the Nationals rotation. If he commands his pitches like he did Friday, he could provide a nice change of pace.
But any decisions on his status will wait until he is back in regular season shape. His fellow starters moved from 60 pitches to 75 pitches to 90 and 100, meaning Hellickson could be as few as three starts away from ready, or as many as five. The Nationals structured his contract with this in mind. Instead of an early-season opt out, his first one comes May 1, by which time he will have had the chance to audition. Meanwhile, he will wait while Cole gets his chance. If Cole pitches well, Hellickson will wait. If he doesn’t, Hellickson will be soon be ready to take his turn.