Jeremy Hellickson is the most decorated pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays’ current rotation, with a Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove award both on his resume. However, he also returned to the major leagues as the pitcher Rays fans least wanted to see on the mound. Hellickson finished his first three big-league starts of 2014 with a 3.29 ERA, but he failed to complete even five innings in any outing and there was real concern in regards to his ability to help the team moving forward. Hellickson hoped to address those issues in his fourth game, and that is exactly what he did.
On Wednesday afternoon against the Oakland Athletics, Hellickson went 7 innings allowing just 1 run on 2 hits, striking out 3 while walking none. Hellickson was not overpowering at all, but with the help of the weak flyballs that were his trademark earlier in his career, he sent the A’s down and was extremely efficient in doing so, throwing just 99 pitches. How did Hellickson go 2.1 innings more than he had in any previous start while throwing just 12 pitches more than he had on average previously? The answer was his curveball.
Jeremy Hellickson’s changeup was most certainly his money pitch versus Oakland. According to Brooks Baseball, Hellickson threw it 36 times, just eight fewer than his fastball, and generated all six swings-and-misses that he forced the entire game. While that looks great in a vacuum, though, it was nothing all too special for Hellickson, who entered the game throwing it 29.2% of the time and forcing 84% of his whiffs with it. Instead, it was Hellickson’s breaking ball that particularly stood out. Hellickson entered the game having thrown his curveball 14.6% of the time, locating it for a strike at a 58% clip. On Wednesday, meanwhile, he threw it 19.2% of the time, and threw it for a strike 63.2% of the time. That doesn’t seem like an enormous difference, but the fact that Hellickson was able to use it more yet find more effectiveness with it proved to make his fastball-changeup combination even more effective.
On the day, Hellickson got four different outs on his curveball: two groundouts, one lineout, and a called strikeout. An interesting stat to note, though, is that just one time the entire game did Hellickson allow a ball in play on the pitch after he threw a curve, Stephen Vogt‘s popout in the third inning. Even if Hellickson’s breaking ball was the finishing pitch for just four of his 21 outs, it was a key offering to set up the other 17. When Hellickson was at his best in 2011 and 2012, he threw his curveball just 11.9% of the time, relying heavily on his fastball and changeup. But between the league adjusting to Hellickson and less crisp command, that doesn’t make sense for him anymore. He needs a third pitch to keep hitters off-balance, and his curveball can be exactly that.
So much is made of the difference in velocity between a fastball and changeup, but for Hellickson, just as big of a factor is the velocity change between his fastball-changeup combination and his curveball. His fastball and curveball were 15.1 MPH apart on average on Wednesday while his changeup and curveball had a 4.3 MPH difference. Add in the fact that Hellickson’s curveball, unlike his fastball and changeup, moves towards right-handed batters, and it can be an ideal offering to precede either of his other pitches–as long as he can locate it for strikes. Hellickson’s curveball has been a show-me pitch nearly his entire career, being used 54.8% of the time on 0-0, 0-2, and 1-2 counts even though those counts amount to just 40.4% of Hellickson’s pitches overall. Essentially, he used the curveball to throw hitters off at the beginnings or ends of at-bats, but rarely as an action pitch in the middle. Against the A’s, though, he used his curveball more at other times than in those three counts, relying on it more as a legitimate third pitch in his arsenal instead of that offering that he had to remind hitters of every once in a while. Even if Hellickson’s curveball is clearly his third-best pitch, doing so put more in the minds of opposing hitters and made his fastball and changeup play up.
It remains to be seen how Jeremy Hellickson will rebound from his rough 2013 and his injury-riddled beginning to 2014, but the potential is still there for him to find results in line with his prior work. For him to get there, however, he will need to do so not as the Jeremy Hellickson of old, but as a pitcher with three pitches he can rely upon in his fastball, changeup, and curveball. It is amazing that Hellickson was effective as long as he was as essentially a two-pitch pitcher without an overpowering fastball, but now it is time for him to adapt. He showed on Wednesday that he capable of doing so, and let’s see if he can make it last.