In his first two full seasons with the Rays, Jeremy Hellickson has perplexed the saber-nerds. How does a guy who has posted pretty weak strikeout rates, walked more batters per nine than the league average and has allowed more fly balls than grounders manage to prevent earned runs like he’s one of the best pitchers in the American League? The answer is actually pretty simple — he stranded runners at league leading rates and avoided hits on balls in play like a champ.
Heading into this season, there have been many attempts to try explaining the magician that is Jeremy Hellickson. What does he do differently with men on base that allows him to strand so many baserunners? What about his pitches make them so hard to square up? Explanations were made and some tried to justify his success. But really, the bottom line is that he did this over just 366 innings (I’m ignoring 2010 because his skills actually matched his ERA), which is hardly a large enough sample size to claim he has some magical baserunner stranding ability or true talent .250 BABIP.
Then the 2013 season rolls around and 10 starts in, Hellickson’s luck metrics have suddenly reversed course. That once inflated LOB% now ranks about 8th worst among all starting pitchers. His HR/FB ratio also stands above the league average, but he was never a big home run suppressor to begin with like a Matt Cain (pre-2013 of course). After last night’s start, his BABIP remains low at .268, so nothing to see there. Really, the biggest difference is the LOB%, something we know is influenced heavily by randomness.
Are the luck dragons simply making up for all the good fortune they doled out to Hellickson over the previous two seasons? His ERA now stands at 5.37, which for the first time, is significantly above his SIERA mark. The weird thing is, Hellickson appears to actually be pitching better than he has in the last two seasons, as his strikeout rate is up and walk rate down. So does that mean he makes for a good buy low?
Well, here’s the thing, even with Hellickson’s skills improvement, he still just seems meh. So by buying low, you’re assuming that his LOB% is due to shoot up into at least the mid-to-high 70% range and he will continue to post a BABIP in the .240-.270 range. He requires this type of “luck” (specifically in quotes because it’s too early to know if he has such skills, but he could very well) to post an ERA that actually earns positive value for a fantasy team.
Last season with men on base and in scoring position, Hellickson’s ground ball rate skyrocketed. If this was a conscious decision to change his pitch mix to induce more grounders, it was a smart one. Not only will that reduce his home runs allowed, which obviously do more damage with runners on, but it also gives the defense an opportunity to turn a double play. This year, his batted ball mix is essentially the same no matter the situation, though his line drive rate is way up with runners on and also in scoring position. Given that in 2011, his batted ball mix was also similar in all situations, it’s possible that last season’s increased ground ball rate was the fluke.
Just like pitchers such as Matt Cain and Jered Weaver who outperform their expected ERA metrics year in and year out, Hellickson is a guy who has never been on my fantasy team and likely never will be. I would much prefer to roster a pitcher whose underlying skills match his surface ratios than hope mediocre skills are offset by a sustained ability to strand runners or prevent hits on balls in play. So although Hellickson’s ERA will undoubtedly decline from here, he obviously shouldn’t be expected to continue to significantly outperform his SIERA like he has over his first two full seasons. Unless he comes cheap in an AL-Only league or was dropped in your mixed league, I wouldn’t bother giving up much for his services.