There was plenty of talk entering 2012 that Jeremy Hellickson would experience a significant regression in his performance following his Rookie of the Year performance in 2011. Well, it didn’t happen- after his 5.1 strong innings to end the season on Wednesday night, Hellickson finished the year with a 3.10 ERA after a 2.95 mark in 2011. Why didn’t Hellickson experience the sophomore slump so many people expected? Did he just get lucky again? No. The 2011 Jeremy Hellickson was going to have an awfully hard time to sustain his level of his performance. But in 2012, Hellickson made a key adjustment that allowed him to maintain the same level of performance and gives him the ability to do so moving forward.
In 2012, Jeremy Hellickson really improved his strikeout to walk ratio. In 2011, he struck out just 5.6 batters per 9 innings while walking 3.4 while this season he struck out 6.3 while walking 3.0. His big issue this season, though, was home runs as he allowed 1.3 per 9 innings compared to a 1.0 mark in 2011. Overall, his FIP got slightly worse, rising from 4.44 to 4.60, while his xFIP was slightly lower, dropping from 4.72 to 4.44. All those FIP and xFIP marks are still bad and Hellickson’s ERA has now been better than them by over a run two years in a row. But you almost throw all those stats out the window because they’re dependent on the real key for a pitcher, his repertoire.
Any mention of regression has to assume that the player will remain essentially the same from season to season. That was not true with Hellickson this season. He added a cutter to his arsenal this season. But really the key lies in a subtle difference in Hellickson’s pitch usage this season compared to 2011. In 2011, Hellickson used his fastball 56% of the time, his changeup 32% of the time, and his curveball 11% of the time. In 2012, Hellickson used his fastball 53% of the time, his changeup 28% of the time, his curveball 12% of the time, and the cutter for 7% of his pitches. Hellickson used his fastball a little bit less, although slightly more if you lump his cutter in with his fastball, his changeup a little bit less, and his curveball a tick more. We know that Hellickson’s key pitch is his outstanding changeup. And in 2012, he was able to use it less often, increasing its effectiveness. How was he able to do that? Progress with his curveball. His curveball evolved from a show-me third pitch behind his bread-and-butter fastball and changeup to a third real weapon. His last start of the season illustrated that perfectly as Hellickson generated 7 swings-and-misses with his changeup- but also 6 with his curveball.
Hellickson has always had plus control of his fastball and changeup. If that’s really the case, then why was Hellickson’s strikeout to walk ratio well under 2.0 in 2011? The answer is that he had trouble putting away hitters. He kept attacking hitters with his fastball and changeup, but especially after hitters got a good look at both pitches, they were able to foul the tough pitches off and lay off the pitches out of the zone, leading to Hellickson throwing more pitches. Hellickson got into far too many 3-ball counts than you would expect from a pitcher with his control and command, opening up the door for walks. In 2012, we still saw Hellickson get into the same type of trouble at times. But when his curveball was on, something that was much more commonplace in 2012, that didn’t happen. Hellickson threw his curveball just about the same percentage of the time from 2011 to 2012. But in 2012, he was able to take out of his back pocket and suddenly deliver an effective pitch. With hitters sitting either fastball or changeup, Hellickson gave them a pitch that started the same way but finished with tight break that led to plenty of swings-and-misses and weak contact. Hellickson’s curveball always had nice break, but in 2012 he was able to sell it better as his fastball and changeup to increase its effectiveness and in turn make his entire arsenal better.
How Jeremy Hellickson will perform moving forward will depend on his continued ability to make adjustments. But he proved this season that he has the ability to make that happen. 2012 was a season where Hellickson realized a key deficiency in his game and found a way to fix it. Hellickson stayed one step ahead of the regression so many people thought was coming straight for him this season and with continued progress, that regression will never materialize.