Jeremy Hellickson is certainly not having a season to be proud of right now. His record is 5-3, but his ERA stands at just 5.50, a far cry from his 3.02 mark from 2011 to 2012. But in one regard, Hellickson has improved significantly: his walk rate. He has cut his walks per 9 innings ratio down to just 1.9, easily better than his 3.2 mark from his previous two season. And in his last four starts, Hellickson hasn’t walked a single batter, tying a team record set by James Shields in 2007. What does it mean that Hellickson is walking so many fewer batters yet is still struggling?
His walk rate is the most glaring change, but Hellickson has improved his strikeout rate as well, upping it from 5.9 per 9 innings from 2011 to 2012 to 6.9 this season. Add in Hellickson’s 1.3 HR/9, and his FIP is 4.02, a career best, and his xFIP of 3.95 is even better. Hellickson’s ERA is bloated, but all the indicators are going in the right direction. What’s going on? The stats have their limitations and the best thing to do in many cases is to simply watch the games. Hellickson is throwing plenty of strikes and missing a few more bats than before. The difference, though, has been his command, especially in big spots. Hellickson’s batting average on balls in play on the season is .302, right around league average and almost ludicrously above his .243 mark the previous two years. Is this a regression to the mean as Hellickson’s longstanding luck has evaporated? No–it was never luck, always command. The indicators like the strikeout, walk, and homer rates never told you anything about Hellickson because he was sticking the edges of the zone, not overpowering hitters but forcing weak contact a high proportion of the time. Lately, he’s been throwing more strikes but they have not been of nearly the same quality, and Hellickson has been hit hard in the process.
In his four-start stretch without a walk, Hellickson hasn’t pitched very well, going 3-1 but with a 5.16 ERA. Of course his 17-0 strikeout to walk ratio in 22.2 IP jumps off the page, but his walk rate doesn’t seem to have any correlation with his success on the mound. The fact that Hellickson is striking out more batters and walking less will help him moving forward. But while the focus has been on Hellickson’s great control, his command is really the focus with him and that is the part of his game ruining what could have been a breakout season. As Hellickson hopes to return to form, there’s nothing wrong with him walking a few more batters. As long as he’s sticking to his game and sticking to the edges of the plate, a methodical but unstoppable return to the pitcher we’re used to seeing will be happening soon.