Jeremy Hellickson keeps it simple, thrives in Nationals’ fifth starter role

As a young boy growing up in Iowa, Jeremy Hellickson watched minor league pitchers who starred for the Chicago Cubs top farm club.

He was able to see up close the exploits of Kerry Wood, a hard-throwing right-hander with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in the late 1990s. He also saw Cubs prospect Mark Prior in the early 2000s.

Hellickson, a Des Moines native, may have enjoyed watching them, but he certainly doesnt have their penchant for high-octane fastballs.

Instead, he has survived in the major leagues by using guile, pinpoint control and a simple, clean delivery that has paid off in his short tenure with the Nationals.

I have not changed a thing. I have not changed (my delivery) since my freshman year of high school, Hellickson, 31, said with a laugh. It has always been the same.

While Wood threw a fastball in the upper 90s, Hellickson averages 89.25 miles-per-hour with his four-seam fastball.

The casual fan watching on television or from the stands may think he is throwing batting practice and opposing hitters should be teeing off on him.

But that is hardly the case.

In his first 38 innings of work with the Nationals this season, Hellickson has given up just 28 hits and only three home runs.

He has posted an impressive 31 strikeouts while walking just six batters in seven starts. Hellickson is 1-0 with an ERA of 2.13 for a staff that has gone 23 games in a row without allowing more than three earned runs in a game from its starting pitcher.

So why is he successful?

I think my fastball is consistently down (in the strike zone), he said.

Then after a pause he stated the obvious.

All of my pitches are down, he noted.

In his last start against the Padres on Tuesday, Hellickson was forced to leave in the sixth inning after developing a blister on his right pitching hand.

He had the same thing his last outing, too, manager Dave Martinez said. His finger kind of gets soft and for about five days they treat it and they get it and hes fine. And then all of a sudden, over the course of the game, it does the same thing. But sometimes its worse than others.

What makes his numbers is even more impressive is that he struggled last season, splitting time between Philadelphia and Baltimore. He was 6-5, 4.73 in 20 starts with the Phillies and 2-6, 6.97 in 10 outings for the Orioles.

Martinez has been hesitant to allow Hellickson to pitch to hitters for a third time in a game. That means more use for the bullpen, but so far it is working as the Nationals are 5-2 in his seven starts.

They are just going back and looking at numbers and seeing what guys did and what I did against certain guys, he said of the Nationals analytical staff.

Hellickson is part of a veteran-heavy rotation for one of the few times in his career.

He was the American League rookie of the year with Tampa Bay in 2011, when he won 13 games and posted a 2.95 ERA.

Hellickson was with Tampa Bay through 2014, traded to Arizona after the 2015 season, and then was traded to Philadelphia prior to 2016.

The Nationals signed him late in spring training this season and he became the fifth starter in place of A.J. Cole last month.

After being one of the oldest pitchers with Arizona and Philadelphia, respectively, Hellickson can sit back and enjoy watching veteran teammates such as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez go to work.

Guys here have been successful for five or six years or more; some of the best in the game, he said. It is fun to watch all of these guys. Watching this guys from the other dugout the last few years, you could see how close there were to winning (titles). Being in the hunt in August and September is fun.

Its not a bad gig for one of the few big leaguers from Iowa.

My family is back in Des Moines. I didnt grow up on a farm or anything like that, he said. I feel like the last four or five years there is a lot of talent coming out of Iowa. I think the scouts are taking notice how much talent is coming out of the Midwest, especially Iowa.