Sean Hjelle

Hjelle's confidence, cutter have him pitching key innings for Giants

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SAN FRANCISCO -- After he was named the manager of the Giants in October, Bob Melvin spent the winter calling his new players. But as camp approached in early February, Melvin realized he had forgotten to touch base with Sean Hjelle.

When the two met in Scottsdale, Melvin apologized for the mistake, but he gave Hjelle a pretty good excuse, saying he was too tough on Melvin's San Diego Padres the last two seasons. Melvin also told Hjelle something else, something the right-hander hasn't forgotten: “You're going to pitch some big innings for us this year.”

That perhaps seemed unlikely at the time. Hjelle had a 6.52 ERA in 15 appearances last season, and while his FIP and some peripherals were more promising, he still had given up too many hits and walked too many batters over a series of cameos in the big leagues.

But that early sign of faith meant a lot to Hjelle, who pitched in losses in 11 of his 15 appearances last season and often was turned to as an innings-eater after the Giants fell far behind. It means even more that Melvin has stuck to his statement, allowing Hjelle to have his best stretch in the big leagues. 

Last Wednesday, with Ryan Walker unavailable, Melvin called for Hjelle in the seventh inning. The Giants led the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-0 at the time, and given how the previous two nights had gone, that might have been the biggest game of the 2024 MLB season thus far. Hjelle struck out Andy Pages and got James Outman to pop up before Mookie Betts poked a single into right. 

Erik Miller, another young pitcher who quickly has earned Melvin's trust, struck out Shohei Ohtani to end the inning. In the dugout, Hjelle pumped his fist. Two nights later he threw two shutout innings after Mason Black ran into trouble, helping the Giants get a comeback win. On NBC Sports Bay Area's "Giants Postgame Live," he explained how the staff has him riding high right now.

"The support and the confidence that I've been feeling from everybody in the clubhouse has made a huge difference for me," Hjelle said. "Going out there and for BoMel to give me the ball to bridge the gap to the late-end guys, to our monsters down at the back end of the bullpen and keep the team in a position to win -- I'll take the ball whenever I can."

While confidence and conviction are key for any pitcher, Hjelle also is benefiting from a change to his repertoire. In the offseason, the staff talked to him about adding a different pitch that could keep hitters from so easily attacking his sinker and curveball. One of Hjelle's offseason workout partners is New York Mets reliever Reed Garrett, and Hjelle asked Garrett to show him his cutter grip. 

Instead of trying to get a slider in on left-handed hitters, Hjelle is relying heavily on the cutter, a nice complement to a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a curveball that he is commanding better and nearly always uses in strikeout situations. 

"I think with the sinker-slider combo I wasn't really able to truly stand up these hitters and back them off the plate a little bit," Hjelle said of adding the cutter. "They were still able to lean out and kind of cheat towards the pitch, and it hurt me a lot. My numbers against lefties in the past have not been very good, especially compared to my numbers against right-handed hitters. It's been a pitch that has opened up a lot of doors and ways to get [left-handers] out. 

"They can't cheat [on pitches] down-and-away, because now they have to respect the up-and-in coming towards them. It's been useful so far."

On Friday, Hjelle used the cutter to help neutralize Charlie Blackmon and Ryan McMahon, two left-handed hitters atop the Colorado Rockies lineup. He has thrown 31 of them overall, with 28 coming against left-handed hitters. It's a small sample, but Hjelle hasn't given up a hit yet on his new pitch. Lefties gave Hjelle trouble the last two years, but the ability to go in on them with the cutter has helped him hold them to a .148 average. 

With a scoreless sixth on Sunday, Hjelle lowered his ERA to 2.65, with 17 strikeouts and just one walk in 17 innings. He missed time in the spring with elbow soreness and gave up three earned runs in his second appearance off the IL, but in nine appearances since that day, he has allowed just two runs in 12 1/3 innings, striking out 15 strikeouts and walking none. 

That kind of command, in particular, will make you a favorite of any manager. But Melvin didn't need to be sold on Hjelle. The overall career numbers might be rough, but in three relief appearances against Melvin's Padres the last two seasons, Hjelle threw 11 scoreless innings. 

After mentioning that success when the two finally connected this spring, Melvin told Hjelle to build off it and become a trusted arm in close games. 

"I think for probably the first time in his career, he's in a much different role at the big league level," Melvin said. "Just being in that role, I think that has inspired him and I think he's ready for whatever we need out of him."

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