One of the many perks of having the top draft spot is having the first draft pick in every round. The team with the No. 1 pick also has the ability to snatch up stray players who slip through the cracks in the first round. Lance McCullers’ selection by the Astros in 2012 is a prominent success story of a team stealing a player with a selection far later than expected. Rated as the No. 13 player in the class by MLB.com that year, McCullers fell to the Astros with the 41st selection after they took Carlos Correa first overall. You could say that worked out well.
In that spirit, it’s easy to see Kentucky righthander Sean Hjelle falling into a similar category as McCullers, a better player than his draft position would indicate. Currently 5-2 with a 3.09 ERA through nine starts, Hjelle hasn’t been lighting the world on fire for the Wildcats, but has kept opponents in check. He sports a tidy 0.94 WHIP thanks to a stingy walk rate but his strikeout totals have hit a career low.
Because of being part of such a deep draft class, Hjelle’s star is being outshone by players like Casey Mize, Jarred Kelenic, and Shane McClanahan (among others). That isn’t to say he’s not worth a look — in past years, he would be talked about as a mid-first rounder. In a deeper pitching class, he may fall a bit further. Let’s take a look at what he has to offer.
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 34
Previously drafted: Never
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: RHP Sean Hjelle
The most striking thing about Hjelle is his size. Jokingly referring to himself as a “Giraffe by profession, Minnesotan by nature,” Hjelle stands even taller than the famously enormous Randy Johnson, at 6’11. Hjelle’s extraordinary hight is accentuated by the fact that he has very little muscle on his lanky frame — he is listed at 215 pounds, and as ESPN’s Keith Law said, “looking, if anything, lighter than that.” Many pitchers with longer limbs have difficulty repeating their delivery, creating issues with command. People don’t come with much longer limbs than Hjelle’s, but that doesn’t make much difference. 2080 Baseball commended his ability to repeat his delivery “exceptionally well” with above-average command.
In addition, Law thinks his scrawny body type won’t present a durability issue.
He’s very slight of build, so there’s some question about whether he’s a starter long term, although I prefer to look at his atypical frame as an advantage because it’s such a unique look for hitters. He’s a little bit cross-body in his delivery, but he didn’t have much trouble getting to his glove side. The lack of a plus pitch really limits his ceiling, but I could see him becoming a league-average starter, given where his command is already and the natural deception he gets from his height.
The strongest pitch in Hjelle’s arsenal is his curveball. Sources are a bit mixed on how good it truly is, but agree that it’s his best offering. Perfect Game represents the industry high mark on the pitch, calling it an easy plus thanks to “very good, sharp depth” and the ability to locate it for strikes or get whiffs. MLB Pipeline wasn’t quite as impressed but was still willing to assign it a 60-grade projection and complement its depth. John Sickels of Minor League Ball threw his hat in the ring too, mentioning the plus pitch morphed out of a slurve from his high school days.
According to some, his fastball is a second above-average pitch to show hitters. The offering runs from 90-93 miles per hour and has reportedly topped out at 96 mph with average life. It plays up when Hjelle works it low in the zone. Thanks to his height providing “difficult angles for hitters” and a “significantly steep entry to the hitting zone,” the heater is better than its lower velocity would indicate.
2080 Baseball is also optimistic about Hjelle’s chances to sustain higher performances from his fastball in the future thanks to improved physicality. Little more than skin and bones right now, 2080 notes that each year since high school has seen him add 10 pounds of good weight. If that trend continues and he fills out, the sitting velocity of his fastball could move from the low 90s to the mid-90s, cementing it as plus.
You will not often see the same attribute listed as a player’s strength and weakness, but Hjelle’s fastball qualifies for both. It is easy to dream on what could happen if he added significant muscle mass, but Perfect Game cautions against that.
While his height and length make it pretty easy to want to project Hjelle physically, he is narrower through the shoulders and hips and may not hold all that much more weight/strength. The fastball is average right now but how will it play when he’s pitching every fifth day as compared to every seventh, especially if he’s unable to add much more in the way of weight/strength?
If Hjelle’s fastball never progresses, or even takes a step back, that would limit his ceiling to that of a back-end starter or middle reliever. Teams are moving more towards an upside-centric view when grooming their farm system, and if they don’t believe that Hjelle will be able to stick as a starter, that is a major ding in his profile.
Hjelle’s changeup is also a concern. It’s not as far behind his other pitches as some other young prospects, but it still is a clear third offering. He has average command over the pitch, and it shows late fade but isn’t anything remarkable. He doesn’t use it all too often, which may have to change as he enters pro ball to keep hitters off of his fastball without overexposing the curve.
Draft position: late first, early second round
Evaluating Hjelle creates a unique challenge for teams with picks in the 30-50 range. There aren’t a lot of players with a similar profile, and the lack of consensus in the scouting industry reflects that. There is probably a similar struggle to accurately assess his talents among front offices. When the whole package is working in unison, it “seems unfair,” and in a normal year, he’d probably be in consideration for a higher pick.
h/t Perfect Game, 2080 Baseball, and College Baseball Daily for the videos