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Player Review: Sean Hjelle

There and back again: a reliever’s tale

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: (MLB) 15 G, 29 IP, 6.52 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 65 ERA+, 1.76 WHIP, 9.62 K/9, 4.03 BB/9; (AAA) 22 G (19 GS), 93 IP, 6.00 ERA, 6.01 FIP, 1.53 WHIP, 6.77 K/9, 3.87 BB/9

Noteworthy: 2.30 difference between ERA and FIP, 53.3% groundball rate

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Hjelle spent most of 2023 on the bus.

I imagine the shuttle back and forth from Sacramento to San Francisco wasn’t particularly comfortable for the 6’11’’ right-handed reliever. He was optioned to the River Cats and recalled back to the Giants five times (the max amount) over the 2023 season.

Most of his appearances with the big league club came in April, throwing 12.1 innings over 9 games. He then pitched only 9.2 innings over the next 4 months. With just one appearance at the beginning of May in which he entered the bottom of the 6th to preserve a tie with 2 on and 2 out against Houston. A routine pop-up got him out of the jam, but he wasn’t so lucky coming out for the 7th. A lead-off walk set the table for a-Maurico-Dubon-on-his-revenge-tour double that broke the tie and sparked a 5-run rally. Nearly a fifth of the earned runs charged against him in 2023 came in the span of an inning. One double, two singles, three walks (one of them intentional), one wild pitch that set-up an RBI ground-out, and the next day, the righty with his 10.13 ERA was sent back to Sacramento sufficiently diminished.

Hjelle didn’t pitch in a San Francisco uniform for 50 days. Well-rested, he put together one of his best performances in his return, allowing 3 hits and K-ing 5 over 4 innings of long-relief as the Giants pushed their winning streak to 10 on June 21st against San Diego. In a nil-nil tie with runners in scoring position and two outs, Hjelle coaxed a swing and miss with a tight, disappearing breaking ball from Fernando Tatis to end the inning. A resolute cry and fist pump as he came off the mound was met with a handshake from Gabe Kapler and another bus ticket.

60 days passed before Hjelle took the mound in the Majors again. The entire narrative arc of the Giants’ short-lived rise and prolonged fall contained in those months. Back with the team holding on to Wild Card aspirations, Hjelle couldn’t keep a 4-2 deficit against the Phillies close. With 2-outs in the 5th, Bryce Harper launched a 1-2 sinker to center that confounded Wade Meckler, allowing him to scamper around the bases for an inside-the-park-homer. Thoroughly shook, Hjelle then hit Alec Bohm and surrendered another run on consecutive knocks before he could muster the third out. A 2-out 2-run triple followed by a 2-run can of Crush off that bat of Kyle Schwarber in the 7th boxed Hjelle from the game and again the Show. 6 runs on 11 hits over 4.2 innings—more than half of his runs allowed in two games. Hopefully, they got him a plane ticket for that trip back to Sac, though I’m sure it felt just as long.

It can’t be easy for a player stuck in the in-between like that. There and back again with nothing gained. I-80 surely is a purgatory, and how maddening that must be: no matter what you do—4 shutout innings or 4 forgettable innings—you’re always the odd man out. That being said, it’s hard to look back in 2023 and say Sean Hjelle should’ve been treated differently. Though he didn’t officially break camp with the club after an impressive spring in which he allowed 3 runs and struck out 22 over 17 innings, he was in the clubhouse by the end of the first weekend. The optimism he felt coming out of Arizona with 25 MLB innings under his belt didn’t last long. Over his first three outings, he threw 6 innings with 9 runs (6 earned) allowed on 8 hits and 4 walks. He allowed only 1 extra base hit (1 HR) and racked up a fair amount of strikeouts (10) but costly mistakes hijacked those positives. In his debut game against New York, he orchestrated 2 runs completely on his own with three walks and three wild pitches in the 7th inning alone.

It wasn’t the look of someone who belonged in the Majors, and though Hjelle’s best stretch was over his 6 final innings in September, he never quite shook that first impression from a decidedly mixed April. Overall he had a solid groundball rate (53.3%) and kept hitters in the park (0.93 HR/9), but his his line drive percentage (28.6% Baseball Ref.) was one of the highest on the team and contributed to a .402 BABIP that was well above the .299 league average. His difficulty in keeping runners off base (4.03 BB/9, 1.76 WHIP) undermined his role on the club as a trusted reliever and limited his role to a multi-inning man in games that were deemed “lost causes”. 10 of his 15 appearances came when the Giants were down by multiple runs. Two more appearances came when they were ahead by at least 4 runs and were considered safe from meltdown.

When Hjelle is at his best, he’s tunneling his tight curveball (around 40% usage) off his sinker (low 50% usage) with a straight windup and easy snap in his release. In his game against San Diego, he was effective when his sinker was starting off the plate and breaking into the zone, freezing right handed hitters. In successive runs through a line-up, he used that tight curve to dupe them into thinking it’ll break in when it actually breaks away.

Against lefties like Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper in his game against Philadelphia, the plan is similar: freeze ‘em with late sinker movement at the hands or fool them with a curve that breaks towards their back foot rather than over the plate.

The problem with any two-pitch player is that hitters often guess and they often guess right. There’s not much keeping them honest. Harper was looking for a sinker in and even with the location being decent, he still knocked it 400 feet. Schwarber was looking for a sinker, got one nowhere near where it should’ve been, and he got to watch it go a long way.

Hjelle has the benefit of a height and his physicality gives him an advantage. His stuff isn’t STUFF but the fact that it’s being thrown by a telephone pole is enough to put hitters on their heels. The ball is still often put in play and hit hard but the barrel is avoided and the launch angle is low. Some velocity aided by some added weight might give him a better edge in missing bats. A third pitch wouldn’t hurt too. There’s been talk of a change-up for some time now, but it has been rarely seen. Hjelle offered it up 20 times last year and based on the map below, there wasn’t much feel for it.

Sean Hjelle seems like a nice guy. An H-J combo in a last name looks cool on a jersey an he’s got a sense of humor. The banter with David Villar in which he touts his Lord of the Rings chops before listing fish you can catch in a frozen Minnesota lake is up there with Beckett’s Godot and Step Brothers.

That video was released a year ago, and it still might be the best thing he’s done around a baseball diamond. It felt like 2023 was supposed to be a take-off for Hjelle or, at least, a progression down the runway, but it feels like he’s actually regressed, taxied back to the gate and is now wandering the terminal looking for an outlet for his phone charger. He’s got 50+ innings of big league experience across two seasons and not much to show for it. His value to the 2024 club is his one more year of minor league options, which might buy him enough time to distinguish himself in a more defined role. Or in a packed roster of right-handers and similar long reliever/pseudo-starters like Ross Stripling and Keaton Winn, he might be a trade sweetener. If he’s with the San Francisco Giants next season, it’ll be with some eyebrows raised. There won’t be much rope—he’ll have to do something big and do it early if he wants to not only get off the bus but stay off.