SF Giants call up top pitching prospect Sean Hjelle

SAN FRANCISCO — Mark and Sue Hjelle were fast asleep when the phone rang around 1 or 2 a.m. Minnesota time on Thursday night. They knew it could only be two things: really good — or really bad — news.

“It was really, really good,” said Sean Hjelle, 24, their son on the other end of the line.

Hjelle, if not the highest-regarded then certainly the tallest pitching prospect in the Giants’ system, was calling to inform his parents that he would be in San Francisco the following day, making his MLB debut.

The Giants called up the 6-11 right-hander Friday, in part to counter the right-handed heavy lineup from the St. Louis Cardinals and partly, manager Gabe Kapler said, “out of necessity,” after shipping out two arms who appeared in Thursday night’s game, Sam Long and Mauricio Llovera, to clear roster spots for Hjelle and LaMonte Wade Jr.

“It’s everything I could’ve ever dreamed of,” Hjelle said, wearing a facial hair on his upper lip that will fit right in with Wade, Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski and others during Mustache May.

Hjelle has been a starter throughout his time in the minor leagues — his arsenal includes three pitches — but will debut in the Giants bullpen. He had a 1.96 ERA in four starts with Triple-A Sacramento this year until his most recent one Sunday in the hitter’s haven that is Albuquerque, where he allowed seven runs. His most important numbers this year: 14 strikeouts to five walks in 22⅓ innings, a dramatic improvement on his 35:29 K:BB ratio during his introduction to Triple-A last season.

He received the news — in comical fashion — after the River Cats’ game Thursday night from Triple-A manager Dave Brundage.

“He pulled me into his office and gave me a little spiel about not getting on umpires and not letting it affect your performance and the way you pitch,” Hjelle said. “We had some incidents down there the last couple weeks. So just make sure because we’re playing for the big leagues. When you get up there, umpires won’t care who you are. They’ll get you. When you get up there tomorrow, just make sure. …

“All right, perfect, there it is, thank you” he said, catching on to the message. “It was pretty good. He got me.”

Hjelle will be the fourth Giant to make his major-league debut this season. Like fellow prospect Heliot Ramos last month, his first stint might not necessarily be a permanent one.

“I think we’ve seen over the course of the last couple years how we utilize our roster best with guys who have options,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think the way we’re thinking about it is how can we set Sean Hjelle, Heliot Ramos and others up for the most success? Is that to have them start, in the case of Sean Hjelle in a game like today? Or is it for them to get a look out of the bullpen in a spot that’s not the most challenging. There’s a lot that goes in to making a major-league start.”

The Giants drafted Hjelle in the second round in 2018 but things only really started to click in the past year, as Hjelle internalized the messaging from San Francisco coaches to trust the movement on his pitches. Aim for the middle of the strike zone and let the natural movement on his sinker the rest of the work, a similar message instilled in Logan Webb leading up to his ascendance.

But Hjelle’s repertoire more resembles the starter he would be following Friday, Alex Cobb.

“He’s getting a ton of balls on the ground. That’s a good signal,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Big initiative for him was attacking the strike zone with his sinker.”

At 6-11, only one other pitcher in MLB history can match Hjelle’s stature, Jon Rauch, who also stands 6-11 and last pitched in 2013. Kapler remembers his at-bats against Randy Johnson and Chris Young, two wildly different hurlers who shared one thing in common: they were both 6-10.

“It was just different,” Kapler said. “Difference creates some discomfort. Discomfort is a good thing for the pitcher. When the batter in the box is uncomfortable, the pitcher on the mound has a slight advantage.”

Hjelle had a contingent the size only appropriate for the majors’ tallest pitcher on hand for his first game in the big leagues. With Mark and Sue, his wife and their two young sons, a grandfather who got a plane for the first time in a long time and more — even a high-school friend and his family — Hjelle’s rooting section numbered at least a dozen.

Contributed by local news sources

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