“I just think nowadays a slider is a big strikeout pitch, and I’ve just never had one,” Hellickson said Monday after giving up one run in three innings against the Miami Marlins. “I have the cutter to lefties, but it’s more . . . trying to get weak contact or something like that. The change-up is my strikeout pitch, so [the slider is] something different, a little harder going away to righties. It’s a tough pitch to throw; been trying to throw one forever.”
Hellickson threw four or five sliders Monday. The right-hander couldn’t remember the exact number, and spring training pitches are loosely tracked. But he still had a small sample size of results to report once his outing was complete: He got just one swing on the sliders, an unsatisfying rate since he wants to use it as a swing-and-miss pitch. He liked the ones that were low in the zone and fell off the table.
He isn’t committing to throwing it this season — “I don’t want to get beat with a pitch I’m not comfortable with,” he said — but should get four to five more spring starts to help him evaluate the pitch.
The veteran signed with the Nationals in early February on a one-year, $1.3 million deal with $4 million in performance incentives. It is a major league contract that ensures Hellickson will be on the Opening Day roster. He remains in a three-way competition for Washington’s fifth starter spot, if you ask Manager Dave Martinez, but Hellickson made it clear weeks ago that he didn’t sign with the Nationals to compete for a job in spring training. Either way, he seems to have the inside track over Joe Ross and Erick Fedde.
Nine years into his major league career, Hellickson is still looking to evolve. He worked on a quick pitch all winter, speeding up his motion when hitters don’t expect it because his usual slow delivery makes it easier to time his offerings. Then there is the slider, the pitch that has eluded him, a preseason project that could help him become less predictable and extend his starts. “If you would have asked me four or five years ago if I was going to switch anything up in the ninth year, I would have said no,” Hellickson said. “But it’s a big pitch that I need, and the quick pitch can be a big weapon for me as well.”
His pitch usage was well balanced last season, according to FanGraphs: He threw his high-80s fastball 42.4 percent of the time, his change-up 23.8 percent, his curveball 23.3 percent and his cutter 10.5 percent. But he was much easier to peg late in counts, especially against right-handed hitters. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw his change-up about 40 percent of the time when up in the count or with two strikes against them. If he could develop his slider into a second strikeout option, he would give right-handed hitters another variable to consider in the most consequential pitch of the at-bat.
A slider also could help Hellickson extend his outings. He was mostly a two-times-through-the-order pitcher last year with a 3.45 ERA in 19 starts — missing chunks of the season with wrist and hamstring injuries — and he only twice completed six innings or more. He believes he can go deeper into games and doesn’t want to tax the bullpen again with consistently short starts. Having a fifth pitch, even as a lightly used decoy to put in the back of hitters’ heads, may increase his chances of doing so.
“It’s really the first time he’s used it, and he knows he has a long way to go,” Martinez said Monday. “But it’s something else that eventually we’d like.”
Incorporating a new pitch has many steps — and many wrinkles depending on the pitcher — that start with throwing it on flat ground. That allows a pitcher to see how the ball spins and moves before taking the mound. Next comes tossing it in bullpen sessions to get a feel for throwing it downhill and toward the plate. Then it is taken into live batting practice so a pitcher can ask his teammates how it looked from a batter’s perspective and how it could improve.
But the most critical part of Hellickson’s process may come away from the field. He is on a staff with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, all of whom have experience throwing a slider. Corbin’s is considered one of the most effective pitches in baseball. Scherzer’s is a key part of a repertoire that has won him three Cy Young Awards. Strasburg really started spinning one in 2016 and has since scaled back a bit. Sanchez, the staff’s crafty 35-year-old, once relied on his slider but now has it as the least-used option in a six-pitch toolbox.
So maybe it’s not just the perfect time for Hellickson to learn a slider. Maybe he’s on the perfect team for it, too.
“Just trying to get comfortable with it,” Hellickson, always quiet and calm, said after another day of testing. “And really, like any pitch, try to get to where I can throw it at any count, any situation.”