To say that 2013 has been an off-year for Jeremy Hellickson would be a vast understatement. After his latest disaster start against the Royals on Monday, Hellickson has just a 5.21 ERA in 27 starts and 153.2 innings pitched. Somehow his record is 10-8 (one of the best arguments against W-L that you’ll see), but he hasn’t done anything for the Rays for much of the season, failing to keep them in games time after time. The only thing you can credit Hellickson for is staying healthy–he’s the only Rays starter who has been with the team all season. However, that is far from sufficient. The Rays are supposed to have one of the best rotations in baseball. Jeremy Hellickson is dragging it down. Why is he still starting games?
There is one major issue with that argument: Jeremy Hellickson has improved his strikeout, walk, and homer rates compared to last season, with his strikeout and walk rates being the best of his career by far. Hellickson’s FIP is 4.11 and his xFIP is 4.17, both career-bests as well. So why is Hellickson struggling so much? Fastball command is a big part of it, but that is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. Over the course of the season, we can’t be sure why Hellickson just has not had the same type of fastball command this season, leading to a batting average on balls in play well above his career mark. But at least in recent Rays memory, we do have another example of a pitcher going through the exact same thing: James Shields in 2010.
From 2006 through 2009, James Shields may not have been quite Hellickson-esque with his ERAs, but he still was a very good pitcher. Overall, he managed a 4.01 ERA (11 ERA+) with a 7.1 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9, going over 215 innings pitched the latter three seasons of that span. Then in 2013, everything fell apart. Shields went just 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts and 203.1 innings pitched, leading the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed. But like Hellickson this year, the funny part about the whole thing was that Shields’ xFIP actually came in at 3.55, a career best. Shields walked a few more batters and allowed a lot more home runs, but he also experienced a huge jump in his strikeout rate all the way to 8.3 batters per 9 innings. He stayed at that strikeout level for his final two seasons in Tampa Bay, and as the number of home runs he allowed came back down to earth, he went from the number two starter he was from 2006 to 2009 to an ace alongside David Price in 2011 and 2012.
2010 was a transition year for James Shields. He was pitching differently than he had in the past, throwing his fastball more because he knew how well it set up his changeup and ignoring baseball convention by unabashedly throwing his changeup to righties far more than against lefties because he realized it was more effective. He threw his fastball considerably less in 2013, but at the end of the day, he was tinkering with his arsenal and trying to find the best formula for his success. In 2010, it did not work out at all, but in 2011 everything clicked. At the end of the day, 2010 made James Shields a better pitcher. It was wake-up call reminding him not to take anything for granted and made Shields realize that he didn’t have to pitch off his fastball to be successful. Could 2013 be a similar turning point for Jeremy Hellickson?
This season, Hellickson is striking out more batters than ever, just like Shields. But the key for Hellickson is going to be to figure out how to isolate the positives of this season while taking out all the things that have brought him down. This year, Hellickson has thrown more curveballs and two-seam fastballs than ever before while bringing his four-seam fastball usage way down (his changeup usage has stayed about the same). He has finally found two pitches that fill what has always been a void in his game as a pitcher: his inability to force groundballs. Hellickson had the right idea, but it didn’t work out because his command of both pitches is still a work in progress. Now he has to figure out the right mix of his pitches to recapture his previous success and see if he could, like Shields, possibly be better than ever before. This has been a nightmare of a season for Jeremy Hellickson. But after two seasons where he succeeded even as he had much to improve upon as a pitcher, it is finally setting in for Hellickson that he has to adapt to survive. Who knows what happens to Hellickson the rest of the season, whether he starts moving in the right direction or continues to struggle. It remains to be scene whether Joe Maddon will give Hellickson a playoff start like he gave Shields in 2010. At the end of the day, though, Jeremy Hellickson will enter this offseason the most motivated pitcher in baseball, and expect a turnaround in a major way in 2014.