Today is the day many of us have been waiting for all season long: Jeremy Hellickson is making his first start in the majors. Drafted by the Rays in 2005, Hellickson is a 23-year-old righty that has blossomed into one of the best pitching prospects in the majors. Going into the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Hellickson the second best prospect in the Rays organization (after Desmond Jennings) and the 18th best prospect in the majors; partway through this season, he's now been ranked the 4th best prospect still in the minors. A small fellow - he's listed at as 6'1" tall, 185 pounds - he's faced doubt about his durability and staying power every step of the way. So far he's proved them wrong.
Since few of us have seen him pitch so far, let's take a minute to review what we know about Hellickson's pitching repertoire. Hellickson works five pitches: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up, curve, and cutter (new this season). At the beginning of the season, here's what Baseball America had to say about his stuff:
"Hellickson rarely gives hitters a chance to gain the upper hand. He works ahead in the count with impeccable command of his low-90s fastball, which touches 94 mph and has nice sink. His changeup has become a plus pitch as he has added late fade over the past two years. He can throw his solid curveball for strikes or get hitters to chase it out of the zone. He throws strikes and creates deception by delivering all of his pitches from the same arm angle."
So basically, Hellickson is built in the James Shields model. He doesn't have an eye-popping fastball or a killer slider, but instead he relies upon mixing and locating his pitches. He'll struggle if he doesn't have his command and he'll probably let up homeruns whenever he misses with his fastball over the plate, but with the addition of a cutter and recent improvements to the life on his two-seam fastball, he now has five weapons to keep major-league hitters off-balance.
And so...get excited. Get very excited. Hellickson has torn the International League to shreds this season (2.71 FIP, 123 K in 120 IP) and he's going to be a big boost for the Rays down the stretch. This outing may only be a cup of coffee, but he'll be back - have no fear. If he gets lit up in this one start, don't get bent out of shape; it's one start and he's facing one of the best all-around teams in the majors (although sans Mauer and Morneua, which is nice). Rookie pitchers take time to acclimate to the majors, so I'm not expecting him to be a demigod immediately. However, I do expect him to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
For more on Jeremy Hellickson, check out his bio done by the great writers at Rays Prospects.