We can’t be sure of anything about Jeremy Hellickson at this point. He mystified us with his success in 2011 and 2012, frustrated us unremittingly with his struggles in 2013, and now has been up-and-down in his 11 starts this season. Overall, he has a 3.63 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 57 innings pitched, solid numbers that should inspire confidence. However, after how terrible he was last season and how unsustainable his success always seemed, Tampa Bay Rays fans may never get fully behind Hellickson again. Is there any reason to think otherwise? If you want to be optimistic about Hellickson, you can look at how much better his command has been this season.
Using the zone profile tool from Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball, we can quantify just how much better Jeremy Hellickson has been at avoiding the middle of the plate in 2014. The difference is quite dramatic.
[table id=11 /]
The different column names deserve some explanation. Baseball Prospectus divides the strike zone into a 5-by-5 grid, and the first column of this table is the percentage of pitches in the middle vertical column. The second column here is the percentage of pitches in the exact middle of the grid, also known as “right down the middle” and “the place where you do not want the ball to go.” Finally, the third column is the exact middle and also the cell right below it, accounting for pitches that are right in the middle and closer to the knees that hitters can still pummel.
Looking at the table, we can see that Hellickson has reduced his number of pitches in the middle markedly no matter how we slice it. From 2013 to 2014, he dropped his percentage of pitches in the middle section of the zone by slightly over 25% of his 2013 total, and he reduced his pitches in the exact middle by 43%. Hellickson has made a concerted effort to pitch away from the middle, and that has its benefits and its disadvantages. The good news is that we would expect him not to get hit as hard, but we would also expect him to throw more pitches out of the zone and burn more pitches per at-bat. On the whole, though, Hellickson is striking out more batters than ever and allowing fewer home runs than his career average while keeping his walks at his usual rate. Maybe he is better off throwing a few more pitches down the middle–the shift is pretty enormous–but this was a necessary shift for him as hopes to reestablish himself as a valuable big league starting pitcher.
The Rays are hoping that Jeremy Hellickson can ride this change in his approach to a strong finish to 2014 and trade interest this offseason. It is unclear where Hellickson will head from here, both in terms of his future with the organization and how he will fare wherever he does pitch, but we can say that he is working to improve and may just have found something.