James Shields is gone, but the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation still looks to be among the best in baseball. The one major question, though, is the number two starter spot. In recent years, the pitcher to take the ball in the Rays’ second game of the season has been David Price, Shields, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir, quite an impressive group and one that Jeremy Hellickson seems to have no business being in. Hellickson does have a 3.06 ERA in 402.1 career MLB innings pitched, actually better than each of those four, but unlike them Hellickson has never gone over 200 innings in a season, managing just 177 IP last year. Can Hellickson become that pitcher who can not only manage a low ERA but give the Rays 200 innings with the Rays needing him to do just that in 2013?
The first thing to note is that Hellickson’s innings total is actually a little misleading. He only tossed 177 innings pitched in his 31 starts, but he missed two starts from shoulder fatigue (the only arm-related injury he’s had since breaking into the major leagues) and left another after 2.2 innings after getting hit in the shin by a batted ball. If you insert Hellickson’s seasonal average (minus that 2.2 IP start) of 5.8 innings per start for each of those three games, Hellickson would have actually thrown 189.0 innings, the same number he threw his rookie year and not too far from 200 innings at all. Even with that the case, though, Hellickson averaged under 6 innings a start, quite a bit behind the nearly 7 innings per start that Shields averaged last season. The Rays aren’t asking Hellickson to replicate that, but how can he begin to close the gap?
The past two years, Hellickson’s ERA has been great, but by another measure, FIP, his performance has really only been so good thanks to excellent defense and luck. Hellickson’s FIP has been just 4.57 the last two years, a run and a half greater than his ERA. The reason for that is that his strikeout, walk, and homer rates have been quite mediocre- the last two years, he has struck out just 5.9 batters per 9 innings, walked 3.2 per 9, and managed just a 1.1 HR/9. The gap between Hellickson’s ERA and FIP is so enormous that clearly there’s something else going on here, and from watching Hellickson, the answer is that he forces much more weak contact than the average MLB pitcher, albeit too much of it in the air, and maybe if Hellickson’s peripherals don’t improve he’ll still be able to succeed. However, even if that is the case, improving his strikeout and walk rates is exactly what Hellickson needs to do to take the next step as a pitcher.
Hellickson has talked a lot about his ability to quickly get to two strikes on a batter but his struggles to put them away, leading to more walks and of course fewer strikeouts. Hellickson is a pitcher who made quick work batters in the minor leagues, managing a 9.8 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 and actually improving those numbers to 9.9, 2.6, and 0.5 respectively at Triple-A. Hellickson was never a pitcher who was expected to be an ace in the major leagues, but he was always praised for excellent control and command that made his already very good stuff play up. Why hasn’t that been the case in the major leagues? The obvious answer would be that there’s a big gap between the minors and the majors, but the more specific reason for Hellickson is that for much of his career he has been a two-pitch pitcher, fastball and changeup, and it is awfully hard to get major league hitters to fall for the same two pitches every at-bat. If Hellickson is ever going to get his peripheral stats in line and put away hitters more quickly, an easy way for him to go deeper into games, the key is for him to find a third pitch. Luckily, he has already done that.
After his start on August 15th, Jeremy Hellickson’s strikeout to walk ratio on the 2012 season was just 80-47, just 1.70-to-1. But from that point on, everything changed as Hellickson went on a role to end the season, managing a 2.36 ERA in his final 9 starts including, most notably, a 44-12 strikeout to walk ratio, 3.67-to-1. The chances of Hellickson striking out as high of a percentage of batters as he did over that stretch by chance alone is just 2%. What changed? His curveball. From the start of the season until August 15th, Hellickson threw his curveball for 10% of his pitches according to Texas Leaguers, throwing it for a strike 54.2% of the time and forcing a swing-and-miss 13.4% of the time. Then suddenly from then until the end of the year, Hellickson threw his curveball 18.4% of the time, throwing it for a strike at a 61.6% clip and getting hitters to whiff on it 14.6% of the times he threw it. That major breakthrough with his curveball gave Hellickson a third quality pitch to attack hitters with and made his entire repertoire better, with his changeup in particular jumping from 14.7% swings-and-misses all the way to 23.7%.
If Jeremy Hellickson is going to become a true number two starter who can not only manage a great ERA but go deep into ballgame and throw 200 innings on the season, he needs three plus offerings with which to attack hitters and put them away much more quickly than he did in the past. With his fastball, changeup, and curveball, Hellickson has the ability to do just that and be exactly what the Rays need him to be with Shields departing. Hellickson still has to prove that his improvement with his curveball is something he can sustain. If he can make that happen, though, the Rays’ rotation will be every bit as good as people expect and quite possibly even better.