Iowa Product Fights Northern Bias
By Alan Matthews
May 30, 2005
Listen closely as names are called June 7. And it might not be a bad idea to have an atlas handy. This year’s draft crop features players from all corners of the country. Towns like Phenix City, Ala., New Richmond, Ohio, Aurora, Ill., and University Place, Wash., are all likely to produce high-round picks.
Crosscheckers and scouting directors have booked flights to several unlikely destinations this spring, and Des Moines, Iowa, features another unlikely prospect with impact potential.
Jeremy Hellickson doesn’t put much stock in stereotypes. A righthander listed at 6 feet, 170 pounds, Hellickson is a poster child for what many major league organizations categorize as a high-risk investment.
Not only is Hellickson an undersized righthander, but playing in the Iowa also means his high school season won't start until two weeks before the draft. Furthermore, Hellickson’s background includes an injury—a fractured bone in his right shoulder that sidelined him for much of the spring and summer of 2004.
But despite all the factors that are sure to give clubs pause, Hellickson’s stuff and makeup figure to tempt a team sometime in the first five rounds of the draft.
Working To Get Work
Back in early April, Hellickson and his father Steve bundled up before making a two-hour drive east on Interstate-80 to Cedar Rapids. The first day of baseball practice at Hoover High wasn't until May 2, with the season opener scheduled for May 24.
But the Hellicksons were headed to Perfect Game USA's headquarters, desperate to find a mound not buried by snow and live, albeit frigid, hitters. The showcase and scouting service offers a competitive spring league for high school players who don’t want to sit around and wait for their school season to start. Although flurries continued to fall, Hellickson was eager to pitch in a game, satisfying his competitive spirit but more importantly giving him a chance to show the 17 scouts in attendance he’s worthy of a premium draft pick.
“(The league) does help because in Iowa they don’t start playing until late May. We can’t do anything at that point,” an American League scout said. “It gives us a chance to get in there and evaluate him. It helps immensely.”
Reviews on Hellickson’s performance that day were mixed: His fastball was up to 90 mph but his control was average. He flashed a good breaking ball, but the stuff wasn’t as sharp as he showed last fall, when he ranked among the top 10 prospects at one of the nation’s largest wood bat events in Fort Myers, Fla., and pitched a shutout inning of relief at the AFLAC All-American game.
The rust is understandable given the circumstances, but Hellickson rarely receives the benefit of the doubt. Scouting directors who make the trip to the Midwest are looking for him to quell the concerns that come with evaluating players in cold-weather regions.
“It’s so hard on those poor kids,” an AL scouting director said. “They spend their whole life on this, and you go in and it’s not necessarily overwhelming and you’re probably not going in again. It’s the nature of the beast. It's completely different from some kid in California you've seen pitch 10 times. You see them good once and you follow him and create a history, but you see this kid bad once and you're not going back in there.
“He's got more working against him because he has to pitch every time out in addition to showing stuff. Everybody wants to find the next Greg Maddux, and I doubt you're going to find them in Iowa and Michigan.”
Pluses And Minuses
Unlike many players from Northern regions, however, Hellickson has a background of strong performances on big stages. The summer after his sophomore season he touched 93 mph at a showcase in Lincoln, Neb. Later that summer he pitched his way onto USA Baseball’s youth national team and established himself as the ace of the staff, going 2-0 with 17 strikeouts and one walk in 14 innings as the club won a gold medal at the World Youth Championship in Taiwan. Two months later he was again overpowering while pitching for Team Florida in another national event in Jupiter, Fla.
“That’s why I don’t understand the issue with height,” Hellickson said. “I pitched for Team USA and Perfect Game, teams down in Florida, in the AFLAC game. If you can pitch, you can pitch anywhere, but they still think you have to be 6-4, 6-5 to last in the majors.”
Hellickson, however, can rest assured scouts have been taking notes every step of the way.
“Anytime you’re dealing with a kid from the North history is important,” a National League scouting director said. “Having seen them in the summertime is important. Your window of opportunity is small, but you have to make sure you see these guys in the summer and fall. And that ties in with what you see when you come back in. You come in knowing your good looks are going to start in basically one month before the draft, when the weather starts to break for them. You have to consider the circumstances they’re in.
“The flip side is that you want to see a kid produce.”
Hellickson’s injury shelved him prior to his junior season and for much of the summer, although his performance last fall garnered a partial scholarship offer from Louisiana State.
Clubs on the fence about Hellickson on draft day might be more willing to pull the trigger in light of the college success of 2005 draftees from the North. Arizona’s Trevor Crowe, Oregon State outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Arizona State product Travis Buck were all lightly recruited high school players who should all be premium picks this year.
“That’s the huge penalty that these kids get,” an AL scouting director said. “This year we’re chasing around Crowe, Buck, Ellsbury and a few other guys and they're all from the Northwest. Where were we three years ago? They've gotten better since they were in high school, but they didn’t get that much better. We need to pay better attention to these guys when they’re in high school.”
Hellickson hopes the attention he's received pays off in June.