Kirk Nicholson has seen a lot of great ballplayers over the course of his 27 seasons as Jackson High School’s baseball coach.
The list includes former Jackson standouts Travis Snider and Brent Lillibridge, who went on to play nearly 1,000 games combined in the major leagues.
But never before has Nicholson witnessed a season quite like the one Dominic Hellman just compiled.
His stats, quite simply, were astounding.
The 6-foot-6 Jackson star shortstop and University of Oregon commit batted a scorching .585 with five home runs, one triple and five doubles in the abbreviated 13-game slate. He posted a .642 on-base percentage and a whopping 1.122 slugging percentage.
He drove in 19 runs and scored 25. He was 5-for-5 on stolen-base attempts. He committed no errors in 29 chances. He even excelled on the mound, posting a 1.53 earned-run average in 18.1 innings pitched, with 23 strikeouts and nine walks. And he led the Timberwolves to a perfect 13-0 campaign.
For his spectacular junior season, Hellman is The Herald’s 2021 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
“As far as average and slugging and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) goes, nobody has even been close,” Nicholson said when asked how Hellman’s season compared to other former Jackson greats. “Even Travis Snider when he was here didn’t have the numbers that (Dominic) has.”
And here’s the real kicker: Hellman’s video game-like stats came with a wood bat.
Ever since the summer between eighth and ninth grade, Hellman has exclusively swung with wood instead of metal.
“Me and my parents, we did some research on people transferring from high school to the (Major League Baseball) draft, and the number one thing was that the high schoolers didn’t really get used to their wood until like three years later,” he said. “And so my goal is just to stick with wood this whole time.”
“He’s trying to get ready for the next level,” Nicholson added. “And he’s a next-level guy.”
Nicholson certainly knows a thing or two about next-level talent.
In addition to Snider and Lillibridge, Nicholson coached former Cascade High School star Grady Sizemore in summer ball. Sizemore went on to become a three-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove outfielder and a Silver Slugger Award winner in the major leagues.
“Dom is not below any of them in talent,” Nicholson said.
“Defensively in the infield, only Lillibridge compares with him of anybody that I’ve ever had. Nobody else is even close. And at the plate, I can’t really match him up with Travis or Grady, because they both swung left-handed. But as a right-handed batter, (only) Lillibridge would be close. Just the presence and the power that (Dom) has is pretty amazing.”
Hellman showcased his immense power at the plate throughout the spring, especially during an early-season stretch of four home runs in three games. That included a two-homer game against Snohomish — highlighted by one of the longest blasts Nicholson has ever seen.
The pitcher fired a fastball and Hellman obliterated it, launching a tape-measure shot that soared well beyond the left-field fence at Snohomish High School, over the adjacent tennis courts and into a yard across the street.
It reminded Nicholson of the time Snider hit a house beyond the right-field fence at Jackson.
“That’s the only other ball I’ve seen hit like that,” he said. “And the thing is, (Dominic) actually does it on a routine basis. That’s what’s really freaky about it. … In practice, we have to (pitch him our) bad baseballs, because he loses our good baseballs.”
One of Hellman’s biggest performances this season came in a 12-inning showdown against Kamiak, when he led Jackson to a comeback win with several clutch hits.
With the Timberwolves trailing 3-0 in the top of the sixth, Hellman doubled and came around to score their first run.
In the seventh, with Jackson trailing 3-2 and down to its final strike, Hellman kept his team’s undefeated season alive with a game-tying double down the right-field line.
And when leading off in the 12th, Hellman blasted the first pitch he saw over the left-field fence at Funko Field for a go-ahead home run that proved to be the difference in the game.
“He’s a special player,” Nicholson said.
Hellman’s hitting prowess and massive power at the plate stem from several factors, Nicholson said. His bat extends through the zone for a long time and he has excellent hand-eye coordination — a combination that helps him consistently make solid contact. And he uses his size, strength and well-tuned swing to generate incredible bat speed, which results in a thunderous impact when his barrel collides with the ball.
“There’s a sound that the crack of a (wood) bat makes when a really, really good hitter is swinging with it,” Nicholson said. “… (His) extension and the drive with the back hip is amazing.”
Hellman’s speed on the base paths also is unique. Elite power hitters typically aren’t dynamic base-running threats. But Hellman may have been Jackson’s fastest player this season, Nicholson said. And because of his speed, opponents were less inclined to pitch around him.
“A lot of guys like him, the teams don’t pitch to him,” Nicholson said. “They’ll just walk him and let him go. The problem with doing that with (him) is he’s also (our) best base runner. … So if you do that, he’s gonna score runs against you. Teams ended up pitching to him because, quite frankly, he was gonna score otherwise.”
As exceptional as Hellman is at the plate, he’s also incredibly polished and talented at shortstop — despite how rare it is for a player of his height to play in the infield.
“Scouts will come to us and ask the question: ‘OK, where can he play besides the infield? Because he’s probably not gonna be able,’” Nicholson said. “And I go, ‘Guys, stick around and watch.’ … (And) they literally stick around and watch what he does and they leave going, ‘Oh, my God. He’s a freak!’
“Here’s (a play he) made like three or four times this year: A ground ball hit up the middle, he crosses over, takes three steps, fields the ground ball behind the bag, almost in the outfield or in the outfield, and throws a strike to first base. It looks routine, but nobody else can make that play.”
And while Hellman undoubtedly possesses a lot of natural talent, his success is also very much a product of his strong work ethic.
When gyms began shutting down last spring during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic, Hellman and his father built a squat rack in their garage. And for about the next six months, Hellman spent countless hours in there lifting weights and building muscle. He also improved his speed by running sprints on the Jackson football field with a parachute tied around his waist.
The training paid major dividends. Hellman said he bulked up from about 170 to 210 pounds. And he sliced his 60-yard dash time from 7.7 to 6.7 seconds.
“He’s a hard-working guy,” Nicholson said. “This (success) didn’t just happen by chance. He’s a big, strong kid, but he made himself a lot stronger and a lot faster. And his work ethic has really paid off on the field.”
Hellman also enjoys seeing others realize the fruits of their labor. He gives baseball lessons to youth around the Everett and Mill Creek area, including some of the underclassmen in Jackson’s program. And he attends every Jackson junior varsity game he can, which gives him a chance to interact with players in the dugout and watch their successes.
“I just love connecting with the underclassmen,” Hellman said. “… It’s just fun to be out there and actually see their hard work paying off. I just love seeing other people succeed.”
Nicholson emphasized how rare it is for a star varsity player like Hellman to invest so much time in a program’s junior varsity team.
“All of this talking about what he is on the field, he is a better person off the field,” Nicholson said. “He is one of those good guys that takes care of all the other people. … Whether he played baseball or not for me, I would look at him and go, ‘Oh, my God. I want to aspire to be like that guy.’ And I hope my kids look at him like that, just because of how hard he works and the person that he is.
“He’s an amazing kid. And what’s so fun is we get him for another year.”