The Tampa Bay Rays’ roster for the American League Division Series featured little surprises. The two most surprising players from their roster for the tiebreaker game against the Rangers, Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Gimenez were both removed, and David Price, who had been off the roster because he had started two days before and would be unable to pitch, was added on. But those moves left one spot to play with, and the Rays’ final decision turned out to be quite controversial: Jeremy Hellickson. Maddon could have gone with a middle reliever like Brandon Gomes, a hot hand in Jake Odorizzi, or even a bat off the bench like Luke Scott. Instead, he chose Hellickson, he of the 5.17 ERA and one quality start since the end of July. What are the Rays thinking?
In 2012, two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum had a disastrous season. He saw his ERA jump from 2.74 all the way to 5.18, and the Giants declined to give him a rotation spot once the postseason began. Why did they even give him a roster spot at all? He was struggling mightily, but they realized that he was a talented pitcher who could significantly enhance their playoff chances if he could somehow get himself together. Lincecum went to the bullpen, and it would up being a genius move. Lincecum made 6 appearances spanning 17.2 innings pitched and put up a 2.55 ERA, striking out 20 while walking just five. The Rays will hope for a similar type of performane from Hellickson.
In the Rays’ 18-inning game against the Orioles on September 18th, Hellickson entered the game out of the bullpen in the 16th inning and pitched great, tossing 2.1 innings allowing just 1 hit to earn the victory in the game. He showed in that game that he can pitch of the bullpen successfully, and it also represented one great appearance sandwiched between rough starts. Simply being on the Rays’ postseason roster has to raise Hellickson’s confidence, and heading to the bullpen could increase his comfort level as well. For Lincecum, even after pitching well out of the bullpen, he struggled when he started in NLCS Game 4 (4.2 innings, 4 earned run) and has only marginally rebounded this season (4.37 ERA). This isn’t some magic move that is suddenly going to turn Hellickson’s career around. But when you have a talented pitcher who is struggling, you give him as many chances as possible to get back on track.
Jeremy Hellickson isn’t going to be getting any sort of high-leverage roll at the start–the only way he pitches in the division series is as a long reliever when the Rays are winning or losing by several runs unless there is another game that goes deep into extra innings. The Rays’ rationale here is simple: put Hellickson on the roster and see what happens when he pitches. Maybe you get lucky and he turns himself around. Even if he does not, the consequences would be small as he will not appear in closer games unless he proves to the Rays that he should. This is a low-risk gamble with a chance to change everything for Hellickson. The Rays’ reasoning is sound and the reward could be significant for the Rays now and Hellickson in the future.