May 1, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (58) delivers a pitch in the first inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

A Little More Luck Could Go A Long Way for Rays' Jeremy Hellickson


On Saturday, Jeremy Hellickson blew it. He had a great run in the middle of his outing, retiring 16 in a row at one point, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that he allowed a 2-run home run to Chase Headley in the first inning and then a crippling game-tying grand slam to Jesus Guzman in the 7th. Six runs allowed in 6.2 innings just doesn’t cut it. But was it entirely Hellickson’s fault?

On the game, Hellickson allowed just three flyballs. Two left the park for home runs. He also allowed four pop-ups and thee line drives, so really he allowed ten balls that conceivably could have been hit for home runs had they gotten entirely on the barrel of the bat and with sufficient lift. Two of those ten left the park for home runs. On average this season in baseball, 11.2% of flyballs have left the park, not counting line drives as part of the equation. Hellickson’s result of 2 of 7 flyballs leaving the park was on the outskirts of normal, occurring 7.25% of the time if 11.2% should have been the true number that left the park. And honestly, maybe 11.2% should not have been the true value–Hellickson left two changeups over the heart of the plate, and those typically go a long way. But over the course of the season, it’s clear that Hellickson has indeed been dealing with some bad luck.

Hellickson’s ERA stands at 5.25 and his FIP isn’t much better at 4.95. His xFIP, though, tells a completely different story, coming in at 3.98, which would be the best mark of his career. The difference between FIP and xFIP is that FIP estimates what a pitcher’s true ERA should be based on his strikeouts, walks, and a home runs while xFIP replaces  home runs allowed with the number of flyballs allowed divided by 10, or an estimate the amount of flyballs that should have left the park on average. On the year, Hellickson has allowed home runs on 16.7% of his flyballs, well above the league average, and if that were to regress towards the league average, Hellickson’s results could vastly improve.

Jeremy Hellickson has been known as a pitcher with an uncanny ability to force weak contact, something that has allowed him to outperform his FIP season after season because strikeouts, walks, and home runs don’t tell the whole story with him. There’s no chance that his career ERA is 3.30 while his career FIP is 4.54 by luck alone–sabermetricians may have thought that at one point, but Hellickson just continues to defy conventional logic. But it has been especially alarming that Hellickson’s homer rate has risen from 1.0 per 9 innings to 1.3 to 1.7 the last three years, even as his strikeout to walk ratio has trended in the right direction. It’s as though Hellickson doesn’t allow a lot of hard contact…but when he does, they often leave the yard. Maybe that’s true to some extent–the fact that Hellickson’s command on his pitches is normally so good might make the few pitches that are misplaced more likely to be hit out–but the way things are going right now is crazy. Hellickson may be a somewhat homer prone pitcher, but he is far too good to allow anything close to 1.7 home runs per 9 innings over the course of the season.

So far in 2013, Hellickson’s fastball command has not been that great, and that has been a big reason why he has allowed so many home runs. Hellickson doesn’t feature much velocity, staying in the 89-92 MPH range with his fastball, and when he misses his spots, it can go a long way. Alternatively, Hellickson hasn’t developed the amount of trust in his fastball that he would like, causing him to throw more changeups and curveballs, and even though those pitches are both very good, the more he throws, the more likely he’ll hang one. Hellickson’s 16.7% home runs per flyball ratio is not entirely based on bad luck. However, just as Hellickson’s luck will normalize, so will his command. Every pitcher has nights where his command is on and nights where it isn’t, and Hellickson just happened to string together a few in a row where it was off.

In his last 4 starts, Hellickson has a 7.15 ERA, striking out 24 while walking 10 in 22.2 innings but allowing 5 home runs, more than 2 per 9 innings. Before that, he allowed just 2 runs in 14 innings in his previous 2 starts, striking out 15 while walking just 2 in the process. His command was superb for a while and then he totally lost it. But Hellickson isn’t a pitcher with average command–overall, his command has been well above-average and that has been pivotal to his success the past two years. The rest of the season, he’ll have his good command more than he doesn’t, and when that happens, he will pitch well.

Between batted ball luck and luck in terms of having his command, Jeremy Hellickson is bound to see significant improvement over the coming weeks and months. It has been tough to watch Hellickson struggle to locate his fastball and be forced to rely on his secondary pitches, specifically his changeup, to horrifying extents and allowing a ridiculous amount of home runs. But watching him struggle like him now may very well be a case of him getting his command struggles out of the way early on his way to sharper precision the rest of the season and outstanding results. Hellickson will be just fine, and with any luck, he will become the number two starter the Rays know he has the ability to be.

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