In his first two major league seasons, no one could deny that Jeremy Hellickson had pitched effectively. After all, his ERA was an excellent 3.02 between 2011 and 2012, the 10th-best mark in the major leagues minimum 350 innings pitched, sandwiched between two pitchers named Gio Gonzalez and David Price. But it was the way in which Hellickson got his results that drove everyone insane. He managed just a 5.9 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9, amounting to just a 4.57 FIP. The difference between Hellickson’s ERA and FIP was so enormous that clearly FIP did not tell the entire story with Hellickson. Even if his strikeout, walk, and homer rates were unimpressive, he did an excellent job forcing weak contact to lead to his success. But despite that being the case, Hellickson’s inability to strike out many batters hampered him severely as it gave him trouble going deep into games. He could not put hitters away, getting his pitch count up and getting him out of games early. But the Hellickson he struggled so significantly striking hitters is gone. Before we knew it this season, Hellickson became a power pitcher before our very eyes.
In Hellickson’s last three starts, he has gone 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings pitched. Most impressively, he has struck out 23 batters, walked just 6, and allowed only 2 home runs. Those numbers amount to a 10.4 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, a 0.9 HR/9, and a 3.10 FIP. Why does this matter? Hellickson has been pitching well of late, but could it just be a fluke? That might be the case, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In his last three starts, Hellickson has struck out 23 of the 73 batters he has faced, 31.5%. The probability of him doing that if his true strikeout rate should have been his career mark of 16.8% is just .00039, or 2577 to 1 odds. Hellickson’s breakthrough looks real, and suddenly he’s a different pitcher and quite possibly a better one.
The difference isn’t just statistical but also lies in Hellickson’s pitch usage, specifically for his curveball. As we’ve talked about before, Hellickson has always had two plus pitches in his fastball and changeup, but now his curveball has come together to give hitters three quality pitches to contend with. Hellickson has used his curveball 20% of the time in 2013 per Brooks Baseball compared to just 12% of his pitches in 2012 as he has shown more confidence in it and used it to get outstanding results. Hitters are hitting just .136 off of Hellickson’s curveball this season, the best of any of his pitches and far better than his .242 mark he has managed on it for his career.
With curveball giving hitters yet another great pitch to think about, Hellickson is fooling hitters more than ever and finding a way to notch more strikeouts and go deeper into games. There’s a reason that the Rays were confident giving Hellickson their number two starter job to begin the season, and Hellickson is poised to continue his development as a pitcher and give the Rays yet another dominant young pitcher at the top of their rotation. Opposing the Rays has never been fun for hitters–but with Hellickson joining with David Price and Matt Moore, expect batters to be miserable more than ever.