I have noticed something that unsettles me. I have seen that a lot of rankings are low on SF Giants pitching prospect Sean Hjelle. Let me list some for you.
Why You Should Not Overlook SF Giants pitching prospect Sean Hjelle
Baseball America has Hjelle at No. 20 below Will Wilson who fell flat in Double-A and Hunter Bishop who just can't stay healthy. MLB.com has Hjelle at No. 27 below Seth Corry who can't throw strikes in High-A and Luis Toribio who, while he hit the ball hard, struggled to make an impact along with Wilson and Bishop. FanGraphs has him at No. 28 below familiar prospects. And even the McCovey Chronicles has Hjelle at No. 30, the lowest that I have seen him ranked. When my good friend and colleague Kevin Cunningham of Giants Futures averaged 10 of the prominent SF Giants prospect rankings, he had Hjelle at No. 22 below Wilson and Bishop.
If the very own beat of the community has Hjelle that low, then there's a problem. The 2018 second-round draft choice is often perceived either as a "low-ceiling" prospect or as a "safe" prospect. He was solid but not spectacular as a pro but the biggest knock against him that was the most likely driving force towards his low ranking is that he was rocked in the second half of last season when he got promoted to Sacramento. His ERA skyrocketed, his strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and his hit rate went way up. All of that bad stuff.
Amidst all of that stuff, I still have Hjelle high in my rankings at number 14 as my final 45 FV prospect. Now, let's talk about value. Like yes, there are those young and upcoming prospects who have sky-high potential when they were still teenagers but fell flat as they get older. With Hjelle, it felt like he never had that. He's always roamed on that 45 FV range. You might think that 45 FV is a bad value. However, in this day and age, 45 FV is honestly good. Based on my 20-80 grading scale which is similar to FanGraphs with some modifications here and there, 45 FV is either a #4-5 starting pitcher or a set-up man/late-inning reliever. Now, compare that to Will Wilson, a prospect who is often ranked higher than Hjelle, as mentioned above. A 45 FV position player is a utility-type big leaguer. Now, I shall ask you. Do you currently see Will Wilson as a future utility player in the big leagues with how bad he looked in Richmond? My answer to that is a definite no.
With Hjelle though, do I see Hjelle as a potential late-inning reliever at least? My answer to that is a yes and here's why. There are two common ways to make it to the big leagues: it's either you are ridiculously talented or you can bring something to the table that is very unique. The current meta in pitching is stuff like the seam-shifted wake phenomenon, induced vertical break, vertical approach angle, etc. Now, stuff gets real complicated real quick if I discuss it in a scientific term but I'll discuss it in layman's terms to better absorb it.
When we are talking about the vertical approach angle, think of it this way. Get a string or a paper or a pen. While holding one end with your left hand, pull down the other end with your right hand. Now that's the vertical approach plane and it resembles the path of a ball traveling in space. The lower the position of the right hand, the higher the value. The current meta is to lower the value by releasing the ball with a low release height (side-arm or so) and throwing that at the top of the zone because the bat path for hitters nowadays is steeper to hit the ball out of the park better. However, when more and more are going to do that, the more and more that approach gets neutered because "when everyone's super, no one will be".
Hjelle, on the other hand, utilizes the other end of the spectrum because of his God-given gift: his natural height. Because he is so damn tall, he creates an angle so steep that even the hitters with the steepest of swings will force the ball to the ground. The average VAA value is at -5.1 degrees. Hjelle has close to -6 degrees. The grading scale has that as "well below-average" but in order to bring something unique to the table, you have to be as far from the average as possible. You can try to make everyone throw sidearm but you can't try to make everyone grow super tall. Throw in the fact that Hjelle has a well below-average induced vertical break in his fastball with an above-average horizontal movement (signs of a seam-shifted wake-generated super sinker) alongside that vertical approach angle and you will be a big-leaguer.
The PCL was indeed rough for Hjelle last season but Hjelle understood the level that he's played at. In the video above, he told River Cats play-by-play man Johnny Doskow that "there's just more hits, guys are gonna get on base, and there's a little more action" and "eliminating stuff that he can't control", and for a lot of reasons, that much is true. Hjelle has never been the big strikeout guy throughout his pitching career ever since college. He's relied more on generating weak contact, groundballs, and trusting the defense. However, we got to understand that even though it's Triple-A, Minor League defense is still subpar compared to the Majors. The BABIP gods are definitely against Hjelle throughout his career. Once he gets to the big leagues, though, his numbers should get better.
Think of Hjelle as an anti-Tyler Rogers. Rogers was once an unranked Giants prospect on all publications because he has a low-80s fastball and a lot of people will grade his fastball a 20-grade because of that. However, a lot of us had a wake-up call when he became one of the best relievers in the sport because what he does is something very unique (a submarine arm slot) to combat his piss poor fastball velocity. Hjelle is the complete opposite. His fastball naturally comes from a very steep downhill angle and add to the fact that it's a sinker just straight-up boosted his groundball potential. Couple that with his power knuckle-curve and his ability to throw strikes, and he's got himself a potent one-two punch. Imagine facing Hjelle in the seventh and then Rogers in the eighth. As a hitter, you are just plain discombobulated.
Me talking about Hjelle, praising how good he is, might make you think that I never see any wrong about Hjelle. However, I do have a couple. First, Hjelle's nibbling a bit in the strike zone last season rather than attacking and pounding the zone, signs of caution and not fully trusting his stuff or the defense. He's trying to make the perfect pitch every single time. Based on what he said in the interview though, it looks like it might be a thing of the past. The second is that he surprisingly dropped his arm slot a bit to a true low-3/4 arm slot last season. That might've caused his fastball to lose a bit of shape and that might be the result of his 54% groundball rate which is still awesome but a bit higher than expected. What I wanted him to do is exploit his natural steepness even further by raising his arm slot but the arm slot is more of a feel thing and he might not be that comfortable throwing from a high slot.
The third is his pitch mix does not exactly jive together. His sinker and curveball are not exactly best of friends in terms of shape. Just a personal taste, but I would have preferred for Hjelle to have like a sweeping slider to maximize the horizontal action to further avoid the barrel of the bat. Sinkers move laterally and his curveball is more of a vertical-breaker rather than a sweeper and if you connect the dots and form a triangle, the hypotenuse is resemblant to a barrel angle at the point of contact. I hope you guys get what I mean.
After reading this, I hope that you guys have a better feel for Hjelle before he throws his first pitch of the 2022 season. Him being added to the 40-man roster is a vote of confidence from the higher-ups about his big-league potential and manager Gabe Kapler gave him a vote of confidence as well. Hjelle has the strike-throwing ability and the stuff to become a big-leaguer for at least five to seven years, whether it's in the rotation or in the bullpen. Look, the dude is still throwing up to 96 MPH in October last season. He just can't sustain that velocity in his starts so that's why I'm advocating a bullpen move where his velocity fluctuation won't be an issue and he can just straight up blow by people. But the changeup's a workable third pitch and if he can solve his stamina issue in the big leagues, he's a starting pitcher, and that possibility is much more likely to happen than the possibilities of several prospects who were ranked ahead of him by others (but not me and Kevin).