By all accounts, Jeremy Hellickson should be having a career year right now. His curveball has joined with his fastball and changeup to give him three plus pitches. And in large part because of that, Hellickson is setting career bests for strikeouts per nine innings (7.4) and walks per 9 innings (2.7). He’s throwing more strikes than ever (64% of his pitches), allowing less contact (75% of the swings against him), and his 4.03 xFIP is the best of his career. What’s missing? His command.
Hellickson has allowed a scary 1.6 HR/9 and 23% line drive percentage as he just keeps missing with his fastball and other pitches. Known for his ability to locate his pitches right on the edges of the zone, Hellickson has somehow lost that on his fastball, allowing nearly three times as many flyballs than groundballs on his fastball, the worst mark of his career. On his changeup, it has been very good overall, but he is making mistakes with it and allowing too much hard contact as he’s relying on it too much knowing he can’t locate his fastball. Hellickson’s batting average on balls in play this year is .287, right around league average, after registering at .224 and .264 the last two years, and that could be viewed as regression to the mean. It’s not–Hellickson is just failing to execute his pitches consistently enough, leading to hard contact. It has little to do with luck.
How can Hellickson fix this? He just has to find a way to get his fastball command back on track to set up his entire repertoire, and his home run and line drive rates will go down along with his ERA. His pitches are moving as dynamically as ever and he’s throwing them for strikes, and now he just has to do a better job spotting them down in the zone and on the corners to beat major league hitters on a more regular basis. His entire career, Hellickson’s command has been one of the reasons he has stood out as a pitcher. If he can just return to that, he will absolutely fine. And if he can get his command back on track, that career year we were talking about above may just be in the works.