The 2011 season could not have gone any better for Jeremy Hellickson. He went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA in 29 starts, 2 of which were complete games including 1 shutout, and 189 IP, and that was enough for him to win the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award. Yet in the aftermath of an incredible season, there seem to be more questions regarding Hellickson than answers. He struck out just 117 batters on the season, a paltry 5.6 K/9, while walking 72, a 3.4 BB/9. His strikeout walk ratio was far away from the usual minimum satisfactory mark of 2.00 at 1.63. Hellickson also allowed 21 home runs, an average 1.0 HR/9, and that seemed like no fluke because he forced just a 35.0% groundball rate when hitters put the ball into play against him, solidly below the league 43.9% mark. His FIP was a bad 4.44, his xFIP worse at 4.72, and his SIERA even higher at 4.78. The main reason his ERA was so low was that he stranded 82.0% of the baserunners he allowed, well above the 72.0% league mark. The stats tells us that Jeremy Hellickson is primed for a big sophomore slump in 2012.
But what the stats don’t tell us is that Hellickson now has a year facing major league hitters under his belt. Now he has a better idea how to get them out. Hellickson will live and die as a pitcher based on his arsenal of pitches and with what frequency he uses each pitch. Maybe his rookie season was a case of Hellickson not knowing how to use his pitches correctly against major league hitters. No matter what the case may be, we need to look at the Pitch F/X data we have from this past season on Hellickson, courtesy of Brooks Baseball in the form of one of my Pitch F/X graphs. Can using his pitches more effectively be enough for Hellickson to put up another great season in 2012?
(For an explanation for both this type of graph and the general topic of Pitch F/X please see here.)
This graph shows us that Hellickson worked with a three-pitch arsenal in 2011, using his fastball, changeup, and curveball. His fastball was a solid pitch and he used in 56% of the time. His fastball’s best purpose was to set up his dynamic changeup, which featured nearly a foot more downward movement and was his best pitch when he needed a strikeout. According to Brooks, Hellickson got 46% of his strikeouts on his changeup, disproportionate given that he threw it just 35% of the time even in two-strike situations. Hellickson’s fastball did rack up some strikeouts as well with its good movement, but the problem for Hellickson was that his fastball’s lack of velocity and only good, not great, movement made hitters able to make contact with it and hit it in the air. Hellickson’s groundball to flyball ratio on his fastball was a bad 0.88. His changeup was significantly better at 1.36 groundballs to flyballs. Hellickson became increasingly dependent on his changeup because his fastball forced swings and misses just 4.8% of the times he threw it, well below his change’s 19.0% mark.
Hellickson did pretty well in 2011 given that he was working with primarily a two-pitch arsenal despite only one of them being a plus pitch. He mixed in his curveball on just 11% of his pitches despite its nice 11-to-5 break (from Hellickson’s perspective- the hitter would see it go 1 to 7 on the clock). Even though Hellickson’s curveball had nice movement, the problem for him was that he threw it so little that he lost his release point on the pitch compared to his fastball and changeup. If you want to pull out your magnifying glass, you can see on the graph that he tended to release his curveball a little higher and towards the righty batter’s box than his other two pitches. That little hint was enough for hitters to have marginal success on the pitch. He still was able to force more groundballs than flyballs on the pitch and get swings and misses 13.2% of the time he threw it, a nice percentage that ranked second in his arsenal to only his changeup, but because he threw it so little he threw it for a strike just over half the time. A big problem for Hellickson is that he didn’t trust his curveball in key situations. With 2-2 counts, Hellickson threw hie curveball just 9% of the time and on 3-2 he threw it just 6% of the time. Even though Hellickson’s curveball is probably just his third best pitch, it’s still an above-average pitch and if Hellickson can rely on it more his entire arsenal of pitches could work better.
It’s certainly worth mentioning that Hellickson walked just 2.1 batters per 9 innings in the minor leagues, including 2.6 per 9 at Triple-A and 2.0 during his 36.1 inning big league stint in 2010, but nevertheless his BB/9 spiked to 3.4 during his rookie year in 2011. How did that happen? And even crazier is that according to Baseball-Reference, 17% of Hellickson’s strikes were swings and misses compared to the 15% league average, a pretty significant difference. How did Hellickson pull that off while striking out just 5.4 batters per 9 compared to the 6.8 AL average?
It really all has to do with the fact that Hellickson was too often a two-pitch pitcher in 2011. Hellickson possesses excellent control and even was able to get swings and misses early in the count, but his problems stemmed from the fact that he couldn’t put away hitters. Hellickson liked to start hitters with his fastball and then throw his changeup. Sometimes Hellickson would be able to get ahead 0-2 with those two pitches. But then he had no idea what to do. He would throw another changeup, but the hitter would take it low. The hitter would foul off his next fastball. Then often the hitter would either put the ball into play or work the count to 3-2 or 2-2. After getting into one of those counts, Hellickson would throw his changeup 44.3% of the time, and then maybe he’d get his strikeout or maybe the hitter would walk. Hellickson’s changeup was a good enough pitch to help Hellickson manage 45 more walks to than strikeouts, but not enough on it’s own to help him get a 2 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. If Hellickson can establish his curveball better, it would make his fastball and change better pitches it’s a good pitch itself and it also would force hitters to think about another pitch in the back of their minds. If Hellickson could say start with a fastball, then throw a curveball that the hitter takes for a strike and then is able to keep his plus changeup in his pocket until there are two strikes, it would help him strike out more batters- after all, when a hitter sees a pitch early in an at-bat, they are able to react to it better the second time around. That would in turn help get his walk rate in the count because he would be able to put away hitters more easily and not be forced to nibble around the corners with his fastball and change needing to throw a perfect pitcher’s pitch like he had to in 2011. If Hellickson can simply mix in his curveball effectively, he’ll quickly improve his strikeout rate and get his walk rate down closer to his Triple-A levels, and he’ll be a much better pitcher.
But what about Hellickson’s horrible groundball rate and average homer rate? Those will both improve as Hellickson is able to keep hitters more off-balance in 2012 with his fastball-changeup-curveball combination, but there’s the matter of Hellickson’s two-seam fastball. If you’re very meticulous, you noticed when you looked at the graph above that the percentages of pitches thrown added up to only 99%. Part of that is rounding error, but it’s also because Hellickson threw his sinker .3% of the time. Here’s the graph above with the sinker inserted.
Hellickson’s sinker had some really nice movement when he ever so sparingly threw it. But there was one major problem: it was basically a cross between his fastball and changeup. It was his fastball with more sink but almost no speed difference. Hellickson threw it just 11 times all season, and despite its nice sink he couldn’t force a single groundball on the pitch because hitters hit it like it was a changeup accidentally thrown too hard. If Hellickson is going to ever thrown a two-seamer, it’s going to need to have more sink that his changeup because otherwise it defeats the purpose of throwing it to begin with. If Hellickson is ever going to throw another fastball, it’s going to be a cutter with sharp downward break. Unless he can develop that kind of pitch, he’s going to be sticking with his current three-pitch arsenal.
The bottom line is that if Hellickson can maximize the potential of his arsenal, that will be enough to negate any possible luck regression. The adjustment that will allow Hellickson to do that is throwing his curveball more, say 18% of his pitches, while throwing his fastball 52% of the time and his changeup 30% of the time. That would allow him to keep his changeup in his back pocket later into at-bats more often and get more strikeouts. And putting hitters away would more ease would help him limit walks. I’m going to project a big jump in K/9 for Hellickson to 7.8 and a drop in BB/9 to 2.9. I also think that this adjustment will help him a lot in terms of limiting home runs, and even though he won’t be a great groundball pitcher, as a pitcher who forces quite a bit of weak contact while playing in a pitcher’s ballpark like Tropicana Field, I would predict that his homer rate to go down to 0.8. Projecting those ratios over 33 starts and 210 IP, completely reasonable after Hellickson tossed 29 starts and 189 IP in 2011, that would would be 182 strikeouts, 68 walks (plus 4 HBP’s based on his 2011 HBP rate), and 19 home runs allowed, amounting to a 3.67 FIP. Because of the Rays’ defense and his tendency to force weak contact, I would project Hellickson posting a 3.25 ERA based on that FIP, and I would guess that Hellickson would, thanks to an improved Rays offense, improve his winning percentage from 2010 and post a 15-11 record. Based on straight ERA, that performance prediction would amount to somewhat of a sophomore slump, but Hellickson would become a much more valuable pitcher for the Rays and an excellent 3rd starter. Expect Jeremy Hellickson to make adjustments after his sub-par strikeout to walk ratio in 2011, and although the results may not be quite as good on the surface, he’ll become a much better pitcher overall.