Giants prospect Sean Hjelle talks challenges of facing Double-A hitters

Ali Thanawalla

Giants prospect Sean Hjelle talks challenges of facing Double-A hitters

Sean Hjelle is one of many Giants prospects climbing up San Francisco's farm system. His rise through the ranks almost has reached the heights of his 6-foot-11 frame. 

Hjelle, the Giants' second-round pick from the 2018 MLB Draft, already has pitched at three different levels this season. He began the year at Class A Augusta before being promoted to Class A Advanced San Jose after nine starts. After posting a 2.78 ERA over 14 starts for the San Jose Giants, the 22-year-old reached Double-A Richmond. 

"It was an amazing night. I won't forget that one," Hjelle said Wednesday on KNBR regarding his Double-A debut. 

But it wasn't an easy one. 

Hjelle quickly learned what a difference Double-A is compared to Advanced Class A. Though it's only one level higher in the minor leagues, it can feel like much more. Miss your spot and a hitter won't let you forget about it. 

"Getting hit for five runs in one inning is definitely a big jump," Hjelle said with a laugh. "The guys up here, they definitely capitalize on mistakes. They're here for a reason. I gotta be a little sharper, and they're gonna jump on any little mistake that I throw."

Through two starts with the Flying Squirrels, the long and lanky right-hander has learned the hard way. Hjelle allowed four earned runs over 4 2/3 innings in a loss Thursday night and now has given up nine earned runs in 9 2/3 over his two Double-A starts. 

There's a silver lining, however.

Of the nine runs that have crossed the plate against Hjelle, eight have come in two separate innings. He gave up a five-run inning in his first start and a three-run inning in his next. 

Hjelle pitches to contact and uses his unusually tall height to his advantage to create odd angles for opposing batters. For the most part, his strategy has worked. Not at the Double-A level, though. 

The Giants' No. 6 prospect will have to make a quick adjustment against better competition. Failure can be the best learning tool, as long as it doesn't last too long. 

Despite recently enduring two tough starts, Hjelle is on the fast track to San Francisco. He joined the Giants' top-two prospects, Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos, in being promoted to Richmond on the same day. And from being drafted to now, Bart has been there behind the dish for Hjelle. 

"We have a really good relationship right now. We've got to the point where it's just a head nod here or there or a quick facial expression," Hjelle said. "We kind of know each other now and can keep the game flowing and moving that way."

[RELATED: Bart, Ramos honored by minor league coaches]

The former Kentucky Wildcat says he watches Giants games and studies the staff's pitchers. For now, though, he -- along with Bart and Ramos -- is focused on succeeding as a Flying Squirrel before anything else. 

"We just try to stay where our feet are right now," Hjelle said. "We're just trying to focus on the next day and just take it day by day."

Giants takeaways: What you might've missed in 5-1 loss vs. Astros


Giants takeaways: What you might've missed in 5-1 loss vs. Astros


The Giants knew this was going to be the toughest trip of the year. It lived up to expectations.

With a 5-1 loss the Houston Astros on Wednesday night, the Giants finished with a 3-7 record on the trip, getting one win apiece in Denver, Los Angeles and Houston. The last game was close into the middle innings, but the Astros pulled away with a big frame off of the Giants' bullpen and Gabe Kapler's lineup did nothing against old foe Zack Greinke.

Here are three things to know from the final night of a three-city trip ...

The Big Inning

The Giants have made a habit of falling behind, and on Wednesday it was because of a four-run sixth inning. The staff got away with a half-dozen early walks, but six hits in the bottom of the sixth helped the Astros pull away.

Martin Maldonado had the big one, a three-run homer off rookie Caleb Baragar.

D-Rod's Return

Dereck Rodriguez made his season debut in the third, and it was immediately clear that the velocity uptick that impressed coaches in recent bullpen sessions had translated. Rodriguez maxed out at 95.4 mph with his fastball, which was his best velo since his third month in the big leagues in 2018. He averaged 92.8 mph, which was better than any single-game average from his 2019 season.

The added velocity is crucial to Rodriguez, a right-hander who relies on a varied mix and was getting knocked around last year when he was around 91. The results in his season debut were mixed, though.

Rodriguez gave up three hits and walked two in 2 1/3 innings. He was charged with just one earned run, although he did leave a bit of a mess that Baragar cleaned up in the fifth.

[RELATED: New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced statistic]

Short Debut

Before the game, manager Gabe Kapler said Trevor Cahill had 45 to 50 pitches in him as he made his Giants debut. Cahill was coming off a finger injury that kept him from making the Opening Day roster.

Cahill ended up recording just five outs before his count got too high, but he didn't give up a hit. He walked four but the misses were pretty competitive. All in all, it was enough that Cahill should be in line to start again next week.

New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced defensive statistic

New Giants catchers thriving in this advanced defensive statistic

How do you make up the gap when you still have a large talent deficit most times you take the field? The Giants are trying to do it by exploiting every edge, from platoons to increased shifts to aggressive use of relievers. 

There have been mixed results, but when it comes to the catchers, there's a clear area where they're excelling in finding an edge. 

Tyler Heineman and Chadwick Tromp have had their growing pains as rookies, but both have done a pretty good job at pitch framing, an area of emphasis for new bullpen coach/catching coach Craig Albernaz. 

Per Baseball Savant's framing metrics, Heineman ranks 15th and Tromp is 17th (out of 55 qualified catchers) in strike rate, which looks at how often a catcher converts non-swing pitches into strikes when they're in the "shadow zone," which Savant counts as one ball width inside the zone and one ball width outside. In layman's terms, it's how often catchers are stealing strikes on the edges of the zone with their framing. 

The league average is 49.1 percent. Heineman is at 52.4 percent and Tromp is at 52.1.

"One of (Albernaz's) main points of emphasis is how we can swing counts in our favor for our pitchers, and some of the most important work that they can do is keeping balls that are strikes in the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think they've done a nice job of that so far and they've responded to Albie's emphasis, and as a staff I think we all believe that the number one job of a catcher is to kind of make a pitcher look great. From that standpoint, the catchers have done a nice job."

[RELATED: Giants activate Cahill, Rodriguez]

The two newcomers have gone about it in similar ways but with different styles. Heineman has been particularly adept at framing pitches on the left edge of the zone, ranking first overall in that area so far, while Tromp is 10th. Tromp ranks eighth on framing low strikes (Heineman has been good there, too, ranking 12th) while using a unique method. Like several other catchers around the game -- including Houston's Gold Glover Martin Maldonado -- Tromp often gets down on his right knee to receive low pitches. It's a setup that might cost him a wild pitch here or there, but should help him steal strikes. 

"The one-knee setup is something that we feel actually makes him slightly more athletic and enables him to push in both directions and be stable and balanced," Kapler said. "It's definitely a work in progress and a focused area of development for Tromp, but it also enables him to get up underneath the low strike, and I think part of the reason that his receiving numbers have been good so far is that the unconventional setup works well for him."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]