How Can Tampa Bay Rays’ Jeremy Hellickson Rebound?


Will that be the lasting image of Hellickson in our minds? (Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

After the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Jeremy Hellickson as the 18th best prospect in baseball and the 6th best pitcher. According to them, he sported a plus change and a plus curve. His fastball was respectable, sitting around 91 MPH, and he had plus command of all his pitches. Rays management and fans looked forward to his debut, and he gave the Rays two strong years. But what happened in 2013?

Last season for Hellickson can be summed up by Game 4 of the ALDS versus Boston. In the first inning, Hellickson got Jacoby Ellsbury to fly out and both Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia to pop out. The Hellickson of old–the one who won Rookie of the Year–was back! In the second frame, however, Hellickson walked David Ortiz and Mike Napoli before Daniel Nava singled to load the bases. Out came Rays manager Joe Maddon, and Hellickson’s outing was done, just like that. Everyone in the stadium had to wonder what they had just witnessed.

It was only three years ago that Hellickson won Rookie of the Year. Fast forward to 2013, and Hellickson’s earned run average was 5.17. Hitters hit .308 when they put the ball in play; in his rookie year, they hit just .224. An oft-echoed opinion is that Hellickson’s luck finally ran out in 2013. That .308 mark lends credence to that, especially when you consider that the Rays had one of the best defenses in baseball again. However, that can’t be the explanation for everything. What other factors led to Hellickson’s downward slide? The answers lie directly in his arsenal.

Hellickson throws five types of pitches according to Brooks Baseball: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup, a curveball, and a cutter. His entire career, Hellickson has relied primarily on his fastball and changeup. In 2011, slugging against his four-seam and change were .456 and .346 respectively. In 2013, those numbers jumped to .517, .383 respectively, both career highs. The four-seam number is less troubling than the rise against the change, which is supposed to be Hellickson’s out-pitch.

As his career has progressed, Jeremy Hellickson has featured a curveball more and more. He threw it 11.52% in 2011, 12.32% in 2012, and then 15.32% of the time in 2013. However, the numbers suggest the curve hasn’t helped Hellickson. Hitters hit .194 in 2011 against the curve, but that number rose to .315 in 2013. Hellickson’s whiff percentage on the curve was also at its lowest of his career. Remember when the scouting report said he had a plus curve? While hitters were not hitting his curveball out of the ballpark, they weren’t being fooled by it, either. It is also the pitch Hellickson throws for a strike the lowest percentage of the time. While it is not the single cause of his struggles, it seems obvious that it needs to go. But what can he turn to for his third offering?

Looking at his career rate as a whole, his sinker and cutter are not very viable options. Only his curve has been thrown for fewer strikes than his sinker and his cutter has the highest flyball and homer rates of all his pitches. At least for now, Hellickson has to keep throwing his curveball, and the question is going to be whether he can clean up his act with the offering. One thing to note as Hellickson hopes to do so is his mental approach with the pitch. Take, for example, when he gets two strikes on a batter:

A. 0-2: He throws his four-seam most (211 times), his curve second-most (144), and his change next (114).
B. 1-2: His four-seam remains his primary pitch (359), but now he throws his change (242) more than he does the curve (199).
C. 2-2: He throws his a change (324) more than his fastball (314). His curve begins to fall off the map (114).
D. 3-2: The curve is just about non-existent.

Hellickson doesn’t trust the curve as at-bats wear on. He uses it a lot on 0-2 and 1-2 counts, but then abandons it. You can say that he does so with good reason as its ineffectiveness has let opposing back into plate appearances and caused his pitch count to keep rising. Since he uses almost exclusively his fastball and changeup once the count get to 1-2, however, hitters know what is coming and feast when he makes a mistake. With that in mind, Hellickson needs to find that third pitch that keeps hitters guessing. Hellickson will have some rehab games before he returns to the major leagues. His first concern has to be his command of his fastball and changeup, but he better use those games to get a third pitch up to speed as well.

When it comes down to it, Jeremy Hellickson’s future is in his own hands. He will be watched by Rays management and fans alike to see if he rebounds from a disastrous 2013 season–but with elbow surgery sidelining him until at least mid-May, all he can do is wait for now. Jake Odorizzi will get a chance to make everyone forget about Hellickson’s woes and maybe even forget about him entirely. Will Rays fans even be happy when Hellickson comes back? Jeremy Hellickson has to get his arsenal back together when he returns from the disabled list. If not, the Rays will have no issue moving on.