Can Jeremy Hellickson Truly Be a Topflight Major League Pitcher?
By Robbie Knopf
Jeremy Hellickson entered 2013 as the Rays’ number two starter behind only David Price. Since then, he’s been anything but that. Hellickson leads the Rays in innings pitched and is second in wins and strikeouts, but in terms of pure effectiveness, he has been arguably 5th behind David Price, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb. Through 24 starts and 140.2 innings pitched, Hellickson has a 4.93 ERA. We’re not talking a small sample anymore but over two-thirds of a season. Is this the pitcher Hellickson really is? Were the Rays gravely mistaken in thinking that he could ever be as good as he was the last two years?
Jeremy Hellickson has always been a pitcher that defied his peripheral statistics. Between 2011 and 2012, Hellickson struck out 5.9 batters per 9 innings, walked 3.2 per 9, and allowed 1.1 home runs. That amounts to a 4.42 FIP. This year, Hellickson has struck out 7.0 per 9, walked 2.3, and allowed 1.2 home runs. That comes out to a 3.99 FIP, better than ever. But despite the improved FIP, the difference in ERA is staggering: 3.02 versus 4.93. Hellickson is defying his peripherals once again, but this time in the opposite direction. What do we make of that? Did Hellickson offend Lady Luck in some way, causing her to completely reverse what she has been doing for him? Luck plays a role, but it’s certainly not the only factor. FIP makes an assumption that isn’t necessarily true: pitchers can’t control the quality of contact they allow and therefore have no influence over what happens when they allow a batted ball. With Hellickson, though, the last two seasons he forced weaker contact, allowing him to outperform his FIP, while this year, he has allowed more hard contact, forcing his ERA to skyrocket. From a sabermetric standpoint, couldn’t you just say that Hellickson is finally allowing the type of contact he should have been allowing all along?
You look at Hellickson’s BAbip–batting average on balls on play–and it has gone from .242, well below league average, to .302, just above the .296 league average. Hellickson isn’t getting lucky anymore and that is the reason he’s struggling so much, right? A red flag emerges, though, if we look at how Hellickson’s BAbip has been divided by batted ball type. Hellickson .084 BAbip on flyballs and .633 BAbip on line drives are actually below his career averages of .101 and .652. On groundballs, though, his BAbip has gone from .226 to his career all the way to .299. The league average is .239 and the Rays’ team average is .238. Only one other Rays pitcher with a minimum of 50 groundballs against him had a BAbip within .025 of Hellickson. Hellickson is forcing contact and the ground and for some reason it just isn’t getting hit at fielders. We can dispute whether pitchers have control of the batted balls against them all we want, but how can that be Hellickson’s fault?
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters for a pitcher is his repertoire of pitches. If Hellickson’s pitches have gotten worse, then maybe there is a real problem. Here’s a comparison of Hellickson’s pitches this year versus his career numbers using data from Brooks Baseball.
Can you compare thos two charts and find me one pitch that is noticeably worse? His fastball has lost a little velocity and he’s going to his sinker a bit more, but the results have been pretty much the same. His changeup is half a mile per hour slower, but he’s throwing it for more strikes and generating more whiffs and more groundballs. His curveball is mitting less bats but forcing nearly double the number of groundballs. Fine, his cutter has been worse–but he’s throwing it 1.2% of the time! Hellickson’s pitches are basically exactly the same, and the only real difference has been luck. Hellickson has struggled through a disastrous year, but he’s just as capable as ever of turning this around and making his final numbers look significantly better than they are now. Jeremy Hellickson is just as good of a pitcher as he has always been, and if he can keep that up while going deeper into games, that is a number two type starter. He will get through this rough patch and remind everyone why big league hitters struggled unceasingly against him the last two years.