When the Rays traded James Shields to the Kansas City Royals, plenty of people across baseball immediately ripped them for taking their foot off the gas pedal by trading one of their best pitchers. It seemed especially scary that Jeremy Hellickson was stepping into Shields’ number two starter spot because although Hellickson’s ERA was better than Shields’ between 2011 and 2012, he had always been enigmatic and had thrown a whopping 50 less innings than Shields did in 2012. Maybe by the end of 2013, the Rays will miss the consistency that Shields gave them year-in, year-out. However, in his last start, Hellickson showcased exactly why the Rays have so much faith in him and that he just maybe could turn into a more effective pitcher than Shields had ever been.
On Monday, Hellickson did something that Shields hasn’t done his entire career: throw a start of 7 innings or less allowing 3 or fewer hits and striking out 9 or more while waling 1 or less. That’s a trivial point- the “7 innings or less” restriction is complete cherry-picking as Shields has met those criteria in 9 innings four times and 8 innings once. But while the results Hellickson got were not so unique to him, the way he did it was something Shields could never do. Against the Red Sox, Hellickson’s fastball was downright terrible. Per Brooks Baseball, its linear weights was just 2.06 (considerably worse than average) as he threw it for a strike 30 of 43 times (69.8%) but couldn’t command it at all, allowing his only two mistakes in the game, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s triple and Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s home run as he left it up in the zone too often, with 19 of the times he threw it, nearly half, being at or above the vertical middle of the strike zone. His fastball wasn’t fooling anyone, and usually when that happens, Hellickson has been torn apart by opposing hitters. In this game, though, Hellickson’s secondary pitches were so good that it didn’t matter.
Hellickson, like Shields, has an excellent changeup, and in this game it was overbearing, managing a ridiculous -2.42 linear weights (much better than average) with 8 swings and misses in the 27 times he threw it. The thing about it was, though, that usually Hellickson needs his fastball to be going strong to set up his changeup, and when his fastball is off, his changeup loses effectiveness as well and Hellickson gets into serious trouble. Hellickson fastball and changeup have always been his bread and butter, and they feed off of each other. This time, however, Hellickson was able to get by with a different pairing of pitches emerging as thorns in hitters’ sides: his changeup and curveball. He threw his curveball nearly as often as his changeup, 23 times, and he managed a -1.82 linear weights and 4 swings-and-misses, buckling hitters’ knees with called strikes quite a few times as well. Between his changeup and curveball, Hellickson did an excellent job keeping hitters guessing, and with both pitches looking dynamic, hitters couldn’t do anything with either of them. Hellickson was able to throw his fastball for just 43 of his 103 pitches, just 42% of the time and well below his 54% career mark, but he was able to compensate by throwing his curveball more than usual (22% versus 13%) and his changeup slightly less (26% against 30%), and the result was a dominant outing.
Entering Monday’s game, since the start of 2011, both James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson had nine games where the linear weights on their fastball was 2.00 or worse. In all 18 of those games, Shields and Hellickson allowed 3 or more runs, with 7 of the 9 for Shields and 4 of the 9 for Hellickson being games where they gave up 4 runs allowed or more. What are the odds of all of that occurring by chance alone? For both Shields and Hellickson, I tested to see what the odds of them allowing 3 or more runs in all 9 of their starts if their true odds of allowing 3 or more runs in a start should have been their overall career average, and then I did the same for 4 or more runs, and the result was significant values for all four tests. The odds of Shields allowing 3 or more runs 9 of 9 times was 379 to 1 and for 4 or more runs 7 of 9 times, it was 296 to 1. For Hellickson, the odds of him allowing 3 runs 9 of 9 times was just 1723 to 1, while him allowing 4 runs 4 of 9 times was a more reasonable 62.5 to 1 but still statistically significant. There seems to be a clear correlation between both Shields and Hellickson struggling with their fastballs and them having poor starts- but against the Red Sox on Monday, Hellickson went squarely against that and we’ll have to see whether that’s something he can keep up moving forward.
With his curveball coming on as a third plus pitch in his repertoire, Jeremy Hellickson has the ability to be a much more dominant pitcher on a consistent basis and even pitch extremely well when his fastball isn’t working at all. Hellickson excellent changeup makes you compare him to a pitcher like Shields, but the key difference is that unlike Shields, Hellickson has a true third plus pitch behind his fastball and changeup in his curveball, something Shields doesn’t have even though he throws both a curve and a cutter. That manifests itself both in how Hellickson and Shields react when their fastball isn’t working well but also in how they attack with two strikes. So far in 2013, Shields has trusted basically nothing but his changeup with two strikes, throwing 46% of the times to lefties and 42% of the time to righties. Hellickson is still very dependent on his changeup to right-handed batters thus far this season as he has thrown it 53% of the time (he’s at a more reasonable 37% for his career), but to lefties he has actually thrown it at just a 19% clip with his curveball coming in at a nearly identical 16% mark. With hitters forced to have not just one, but two quality secondary pitches in the back of their heads with two strikes, Hellickson has a chance to not just strike out batters at an impressive rate but also keep hitters off-balance and making weaker contact even when he doesn’t execute perfectly.
Since mid-August of 2012, Hellickson has come a long way with his curveball, and while he didn’t quite have it in his first two starts of 2013, it certainly attracted attention against the Red Sox on Monday. Hellickson won’t have that good of a breaking ball every time out and it remains to be seen whether he can use it effectively on a consistent basis moving forward. However, if Hellickson can continue to demonstrate that his curveball is a third weapon in his arsenal, suddenly everything else in his game will fall into place. He’ll strike out more batters, walk less, and force more weak contact, leading to an ERA still in the high-2.00′s or low-3.00′s but also allowing Hellickson to go deeper into games and compile more innings on the season, maybe even becoming a perennial 200-inning pitcher like Shields. With all of that being the case, Jeremy Hellickson has the ability to be every bit the number two-type starter that Shields was for the Rays and maybe even better.