Can Jeremy Hellickson Replace James Shields?

By David Hill

Heading into the 2013 season, the top of the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation has changed dramatically from the previous year. With the departure of James Shields, the Rays need another picture to step up and come close to replicating Shields’ production over the past few years. The question is, who would be able to step up and fill that void?

Following the reigning Cy YoungAward winner David Price, the Rays projected rotation would have Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb as their top four starters. As both Moore and Cobb are going to be entering their second full year in the majors, that pressure is likely to fall upon Hellickson’s right arm. Yet, is he capable of being that type of pitcher?

At first glance, Hellickson appears as though he should be capable of stepping up as the second starter. Despite only having a 23-21 record, Hellickson has produced a 3.02 ERA and 1.202 WHiP over his two full seasons as a starter. He has given up just under 8 hits per nine innings. Yet, there is a second side for Hellickson’s statistics – he has a strikeout to walk rate of only 1.84 over that time frame, and his statistics have been bolstered by an amazing batting average against of .227. Considering his defensive independent pitching suggests an ERA of 4.46 for his career, Hellickson appears as though he should be considered a below average pitcher, and potentially replaceable in his own right.

Hellickson has also had difficulties going deep in games. Of his 60 starts in the past two years, 22 have been for less than six innings, including the last five starts of 2012. As Shields had only 6 of his 66 starts in the past two seasons last fewer than six innings, and pitched 14 complete games over than span, Hellickson may have difficulties in becoming that type of pitcher next year.

For Hellickson to take that next step, it appears as though two things need to happen – he needs to be able to pitch deeper into games on a consistent basis, and he needs to develop an ability to strike out opposing batters. In fact, the two appear as though that would be related – if Hellickson developed more a third swing-and-miss pitch behind his impressive fastball and changeup, then he likely would not have as many deep counts. The good news is that he made major strides developing a third pitch, his curveball in 2012, throwing it for a strike 57% of the time and getting whiffs 14.5% of the times he threw it according to Brooks Baseball compared to just 51% and 13.0% respectively in 2011, and when his curveball was on, Hellickson looked truly dominant for the first time as a major league pitcher. However, for Hellickson to truly take the next step and become his major league starter, he has to find a way to make his curveball more consistently effective. Even if Hellickson does continue to refineshis curveball, it still may not be fair to expect that he alone becomes the replacement for James Shields in the rotation. In all likelihood, it will take Hellickson, Moore and Cobb to take a step forward in order for the Rays to come close to replacing Shields.

2013 may be a very important season for Jeremy Hellickson. If he is going to become the type of pitcher he was expected to be, and is going to slide in as the second starter for the Rays, he has to show signs this year. While he has taken small steps forward, Hellickson still has a lot to prove.