As he went through Giants big league camp for the first time last spring, Sean Hjelle kept a close eye on flights from Phoenix back to Richmond, Virginia, constantly bookmarking the best options. But Hjelle wasn't preparing for a likely trip to Double-A to start the year.
The right-hander was waiting for the birth of his first child, a son due to be born April 1 in Richmond, where his wife is from. That was two days before the Giants were supposed to send their minor leaguers to affiliates, but the spring never got that far. COVID-19 shut the sport down and threw Hjelle's carefully crafted plans out the window.
When camp stopped, Hjelle and catcher Matt Winn waited a day to make sure nothing would change and then hopped in their trucks and formed a caravan back to Virginia. It took them 32 hours on the road, but Hjelle was home in time for the birth of George Edward, who not surprisingly entered the world at 9 pounds, 2 ounces. That kicked off a summer filled with highs, but also some disappointment.
Like the rest of the organization's top pitching prospects, Hjelle was left off the roster for Summer Camp and the alternate site. He spent what was to be a crucial season in his development throwing simulated innings in an empty ballpark. But he also unexpectedly got to be home for most of his son's first year.
"It's kind of a tale of two cities on that one," Hjelle said. "It's been incredible in terms of my personal life. That's the silver lining of not having baseball, and it's the best one you can ask for."
When the Giants chose their expanded roster last July they prioritized their top hitting prospects, reasoning that it would be much easier for their young pitchers to simulate a lost season by throwing off mounds at home, while hitters really needed to see live pitching to make any strides. That was easier said than done for some. Hjelle happened to be one of the lucky ones.
The country might have mostly closed last summer, but Hjelle still had access to the Richmond Flying Squirrels' facility, and most importantly, he had a catcher. Winn, who spent the previous year in Double-A and since has taken a video replay job with the Braves, borrowed a Rapsodo machine from a local gym and the two simulated action as much as they could. For a while, Hjelle kept throwing on a regular spring schedule, making sure he was ready to give an affiliate at least three or four innings if seasons suddenly started up. Then the minor league season was canceled and the Giants somewhat surprisingly set their expanded roster without Hjelle.
"It was multiple emotions, for sure," he said. "Obviously getting the chance to go there and be around the right eyes and the right people who make decisions, I was not going to complain or say no to being around that. I wanted to be there, but at the same time, selfishly, I got so much more time with my family. I got to work on some things on my own. It was nice to separate and clear my mind. I hit the reset button with some areas."
Last year was supposed to be a breakthrough season for Hjelle, taken in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft. He reached Double-A in his first full professional season and threw well in camp last spring, sitting at 95 mph in his first Cactus League appearance. It wasn't hard to picture Hjelle starting 2020 in Double-A and jumping to Triple-A and then the big leagues over the summer. Instead, he spent his time throwing alone in a ballpark with Winn and an ever-evolving playlist that helped keep the energy up.
Hjelle worked on his body but also tried to clear his head. He thought back to his sophomore year at Kentucky, when he sat down in front of a new coach and said, "I want to be your Friday night starter." He was, but at the end of the year the coach sat him down and reminded him that the slate would be wiped clean the next spring.
"Good, bad, ugly, whatever it may be, a little bit of a reset is good," Hjelle said. "It's not starting over, it's just taking a step outside the bubble a little, taking a breath and refreshing mentally and physically."
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The 23-year-old had a year away from organized baseball, but he still felt prepared as he headed back to Scottsdale this spring. The first week has been positive. Manager Gabe Kapler said Hjelle has had good command and a presence about him in the bullpen and has made "a nice impression so far." Catcher Joey Bart talked excitedly about what's to come for his fellow 2018 draftee.
At 6-foot-11, Hjelle first gets noticed for his height, and he has an easy-going personality. But Bart likes what's lurking underneath.
"He's a competitor. When he has the ball in his hand he's almost mad," Bart said. "I don't call the shots, I'm not sure why he wasn't around at the alternate site, but I hope he gets a good look this spring. I really like him. I think he can really help us out. There's not a lot of guys that are tall that can throw the ball like that."
Hjelle might have been out of sight last summer, but he wasn't forgotten by team officials. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has built pitching depth in recent weeks, but still said he expects the organization's young starters to chip in later this season. Hjelle and fellow right-hander Tristan Beck are at the front of the line.
"One of these guys is going to get the opportunity," Zaidi said. "And this is going to be our first look at seeing how they stack up."
Hjelle's first look at a big league camp last spring is one he won't forget. He walked into the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse with wide eyes, noticing how many World Series champs and established veterans were around him. As his second camp started last week, he recalled something he once heard Matthew McConaughey say: "Be less impressed and be more involved."
"I had my kid in the candy store moment last year," Hjelle said. "I'm here to work now. Let's get after it, let's get to business."