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How Do You Judge a Pitcher (Say, Johnny Hellweg) Making the First Starts of His Career?

(Image: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

With the All-Star break approaching, the Brewers are in last place, the season appears lost, and starting pitching has been the obvious weakness.  If you’re a Brewers fan, you’d love some sign that decent starting pitching is on its way.  Some prospects have had opportunities this season, but as a fan it’s hard to know how to feel about unproven pitchers making their first starts in the big leagues.

Take Johnny Hellweg (s'il vous plaît).  Hellweg is a guy with great velocity who might be a solid starter at some point, but his first two starts in the majors have not been anything to get excited about.  His debut was a complete disaster, but this was a guy making his first start against the best team in the league (it still feels peculiar writing that about the Pirates).  Hellweg’s second start against the Mets on Friday was also a bummer, but it seems unfair to judge him too harshly since the defense committed two errors while he was out there.

Hellweg didn’t do himself any favors by walking five Mets, which has apparently been a longstanding problem for him.  A recent post on MLB Trade Rumors made a point I wasn’t familiar with – apparently tall guys might need extra time before they come around:

Hellweg's raw ability is undeniable but command and control issues have haunted him throughout his pro career. Tall pitchers are considered late bloomers in those areas, and the 6'9'' right-handed hurler definitely fits into that category.

With the Brewers not going anywhere this season, it makes sense to give Hellweg a longer leash than you otherwise might.  On one hand, it doesn’t seem fair to judge a pitcher too harshly when he’s not really ready.

On the other (um) hand, Donovan Hand has pitched much better than anyone could have expected.  Hand also started against the Pirates and managed not to get murdered (although he did take the loss).  His other starts against the Braves and Nationals have been positively heartwarming.  Hand has only walked three over 29 innings this season, while Hellweg has walked eight in 6.1 innings.  It’s fair to say Brewers fans are looking forward to Hand’s next start more than Hellweg’s.

Hiram Burgos is another guy who was called upon to fill a spot in the rotation on short notice, and he did just fine.  If you take away that one start against the Reds (Bill Schroeder: “…which you can’t…”) when he was left in to get shelled, Burgos would have an ERA of 3.76.  He wasn’t spectacular, but it felt like he made more of his opportunity than Hellweg.

To be sure, Hellweg might one day be reliable starting pitcher for some team, hopefully the Brewers.  But when there are two other guys who seem to have reacted better to the pressure of being called up, Hellweg’s bad first impression stands out that much more.  Would it be fair to judge him harshly if he has a third ineffective start?  Even on a team as lame as the 2013 Brewers, three weak performances in a row should be enough to give Tyler Thornburg that rotation spot.