SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The 160th game of the 2022 MLB season gave the Giants their 80th loss, but as Gabe Kapler stood in the visiting clubhouse at Petco Park last October, he didn't have any trouble finding a huge -- literally -- silver lining.
Sean Hjelle had struck out a career-high eight and shown his best stuff as a big leaguer. Kapler talked passionately about how much confidence Hjelle would be taking into the offseason, calling the five innings "as good a last showing for Sean Hjelle as we could have imagined." Hjelle did end up taking the memories from that start into his offseason work, but not all of them were positive.
When you dig into Hjelle's pitches that night, you see a trend -- one that's not surprising, but still crucial to the young right-hander. Every sinker Hjelle threw in his first inning against the San Diego Padres registered at least 95 mph, including a 96.8-mph pitch that was his fastest of the season. But the velocity started to subtly dip, with Hjelle finishing the night sitting around 93 mph. After his first inning on the mound, Hjelle had just three more pitches at 95-plus mph.
Hjelle can get big leaguers out in the lower 90s, but as he started preparing for his offseason work, he thought about how much better he feels when he first takes the mound in a big league game. The velocity drop-off in that final outing was there in his others, too.
"I made the joke that the adrenaline rush of being in the big leagues and that extra boost, it's the best drug in the world," Hjelle said over the weekend. "The adrenaline and euphoria is just an extra mile an hour and it just happens naturally. I was just trying to ride that high as long as I could."
While a lot of starters like to build up as they go and save their best bolts for big moments later in a game, Hjelle knows that his best path to big league success is to maintain the better velocity that shows on occasion. There's not much you can do to find adrenaline rushes in an offseason, at least not on the mound, so Hjelle went with a more traditional method.
It is cliché, but when Hjelle showed up to Scottsdale Stadium, he truly was in the best shape of his life. An offseason of lifting and consuming massive amounts of calories put 15 pounds on his 6-foot-11 frame. It is hard to see given his height, but Hjelle feels it on the mound, and he had a firm fastball Sunday while striking out a pair and allowing just one baserunner in two innings.
"He looked great," Kapler said. "He came out throwing hard."
Kapler said he would go back and look at the Trackman data to see how well Hjelle maintained his stuff, but he saw from the dugout that the right-hander was attacking the strike zone and had good movement on his pitches.
"He's very confident out there," Kapler added.
That comes in part from that offseason of packing on calories, which was nothing new for Hjelle. When he was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, Hjelle added 25 pounds to his frame, but he did so in a way you would expect from a teenager. He tried to hit 5,500 to 6,000 calories per day, and it didn't really matter if he was doing it in a healthy way.
"That was nice because I could eat any kind of calorie and just get after it," he said, smiling. "My nutritionist was like, 'You can eat three large pizzas a week and I'm not going to bat an eye at it.' "
Heading into this past offseason, Hjelle wanted to add 10 pounds to his frame. He settled in at 4,500 calories a day, eating three large meals and then adding snacks here and there. Hjelle mostly ate chicken and "lots of starches," and when he reported to camp, he was up 15 pounds but only had gained two percent in terms of body fat. The majority of the added weight was lean muscle mass. The Giants use an app to organize offseason workouts and throwing programs for their pitchers, and Hjelle was religious about sticking to the plan.
"I knew I needed to get stronger and hold that velocity longer. That was my number one goal this offseason, to get stronger and put on weight in general," he said. "It's paying off so far. The velocity is showing right now, and it doesn't feel like extra effort. It feels nice, easy and fluid right now."
The first outing followed promising bullpen sessions for a pitcher who still would seem to have an uphill climb this spring. Kapler views Hjelle as someone who very clearly is a big league starter if he maintains his velocity and attacks the strike zone, but the Giants don't have an opening at the moment. There are six starters in camp, with Jakob Junis -- a pitcher Kapler says had perhaps the best offseason of any Giant -- waiting in the bullpen.
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That depth won't last, though. It never does, and Hjelle has put himself in a good position to get the call when help is needed, or be an option to help out in the bullpen, where he wouldn't have to worry about holding his velocity for five or six innings. The offseason work put him in a good spot. Now, he's hoping it leads to more of the adrenaline that always surges through him when he takes a big league mound.
"I want to keep that feeling," he said. "I feel like this is the most mentally prepared that I've been coming into camp. I know what I want, I know what my goals are. My goals are obviously to make the team and stay in the big leagues and try not to look back, but you've still got to work for it. It's about taking it one day at a time and just taking advantage of every opportunity to show that I belong on the team and I'm ready to compete and get after it."