Jeremy Hellickson Defies The Odds

Jeremy Hellickson was a major bust candidate entering last season. The 2011 Rookie of the Year may have pitched well according to traditional methods, racking up a 2.95 ERA over 189 innings, but the peripherals told a different story. Hellickson didn’t display a dominant skill set, posting very average strikeout and walk rates. Most of all, Hellickson’s .223 BABIP was the lowest figure in the league among starting pitchers. Even with all the warning signs, Hellickson succeeded again. And while his .261 BABIP didn’t lead the league, it still tied him for sixth. After two straight seasons of outperforming his peripherals, and posting low BABIPs, it’s time to start wondering whether this is going to be a trend with Hellickson.

Few players are consistently able to suppress their BABIP as successfully as Hellickson has thus over a two year span. When sorting from the lowest BABIP among players between their age-24 and age-25 seasons, Hellickson’s .242 BABIP ties for the third lowest since 1969. Here’s how those players fared the following season, and over their careers in the category. Now, you can look at some of those players’ career numbers, and you might realize that many of them finished with pretty good career BABIPs. There’s a problem with that line of thinking, however. League average BABIP was much different in the eras in which these players pitched. Most of them pitched from the late 1960s to 1980. League average BABIP back then hovered around .275 to .280. League average BABIP was .293 last season, and has been in that same range since about 1993. That makes Hellickson’s performance even more surprising. Hellickson has pitched in an era where BABIP is much higher, so he’s been able to suppress his BABIP more than most of the players at the top of that list. There are a few exceptions, however.

There are a few more recent players on the list that we could try and use to see whether Hellickson’s low BABIP is sustainable for another season.

Player Ages 24-25 Age-26 BABIP Career BABIP
Barry Zito 0.242 0.291 0.269
Johan Santana 0.248 0.262 0.276
Carlos Zambrano 0.252 0.269 0.277
Freddy Garcia 0.256 0.292 0.284
A.J. Burnett 0.256 0.254 0.290
Matt Cain 0.257 0.260 0.264
Kevin Millwood 0.262 0.273 0.297
Ricky Bones 0.264 0.279 0.286
Dustin Hermanson 0.265 0.298 0.284
Jon Garland 0.266 0.309 0.284

That chart gives a wide range of different outcomes. Most pitchers saw an increase in BABIP during their age-26 season, but sometimes it was a small jump, like Carlos Zambrano. Other times, like with Dustin Hermanson, BABIP increased quite a bit. For players who didn’t see a big increase during that first season, they eventually experienced spikes in their BABIP, as evidenced by their higher career BABIPs. Matt Cain is the only pitcher on the list who has sustained his BABIP suppression skills over the course of his career.

The other main area that explains Hellickson’s disconnect between his ERA and FIP is his LOB%. Over the past two seasons, Hellickson has stranded over 82% of runners, that’s an extraordinarily high number. In fact, it’s the highest figure among starting pitchers from 1969 to 2012. That doesn’t bode well for Hellickson being able to sustain his success with runners on base. Unless we’re seeing something for the first time ever, that rate won’t continue.

Hellickson is definitely a unique pitcher. And while he’s shown some ability to suppress his BABIP, we should probably expect that number to rise eventually. It may rise by a small amount next season, or it could take a big leap towards .300. Either can happen based on players with similar BABIP numbers. His LOB success should also start to regress, as no one has ever been as fortunate as Hellickson with runners on base. Barring an improvement in skills, he’s a good bet to experience some regression next season.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


21 Responses to “Jeremy Hellickson Defies The Odds”

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  1. diegosanchez says:

    I still think the improvement in skills is coming. He had 9.75 K/9, 2.13 BB/9, and 0.70 HR/9 rates in the minors over 574 innings. I think his numbers will climb closer to those levels this season, but with some regression is other areas as you mentioned.

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    • Chris Cwik says:

      I do think there’s room for improvement in his line. Hellickson showed better strikeout ability throughout the minors, so seeing a dramatic shift in skills is more possible with him than, say, Wade Miley. Until it happens, he’s not a guy I would overpay for. But if it looks like he’s figured things out in the first couple months next year, I would have a hard time calling it a fluke.

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  2. Ben says:

    As a stat nerd, Hellickson weirds me out, but this post motivated me to look a little deeper and see if there is there anything that would contribute to this. I think I found ONE thing. I first looked at batted-balls, and he’s not very much a ground-ball (career 38%) or fly-ball pitcher (41%), he gives up home runs at a league-average rate (10% HR/FB), he does get an above-average IFFB% (13%) but not by a ton.He plays in Tampa with a pitcher-friendly park and great defense, but as you said, he has a high LOB%, which is usually a product of strikeouts.

    But his crazy-low BABIP goes DOWN with men on base, and his GB% goes all the way up to 50%! It looks like Hellickson’s secret is somehow turning into a ground-ball pitcher when there’s men on base, and relying on his team’s elite defense to bail him out. I can’t find a way to check but I’d bet he has an extremely high double-play % over the last two years as well.

    I wonder if that’s his trick? And more importantly, I wonder if that’s sustainable? (I’m still betting no, especially when people are willing to pay just based on his results)

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    • Ben says:

      Aha! Baseball-reference has DoublePlay% and Hellickson’s career is about 14% compared to league-average of 11%. No idea if that’s “extremely high” but it’s obviously above average. Goes some way to explaining the high LOB% with a low K%

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    • Good find Ben, but BABIP is higher on ground balls, so it’s still counter intuitive that Hellickson’s GB% rises, while his BABIP declines.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        Does that hold true with men on base, though? If you get the force at 2nd then it isn’t scored as a hit and thus doesn’t count as a hit for example. Could it be something like that?

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  3. danielschwartz.rotobanter says:

    He’s a difficult one to project/qualify. I mean he improved his K/BB ratio from 2011and it’s in this command ratio where he could improve again in 2013. He incurred more GB and less FB but his HR/FB ratio jumped significantly. From a command perspective (without dominance) he can be successful, but i believe batters will make contact too much for him to be considered a true fantasy asset (he’s basically slightly worse than MLB avg in batter contact rate). I think it’s this balance of command & contact where he can continue to post solid ERA numbers with higher expected ERA associated.

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  4. danielschwartz.rotobanter says:

    Also, LOB is a luck factor and he continues to be very lucky in this category.

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    • SKob says:

      Yeah, but you also have the situations where pitchers pitch worse with men on base just because they panic. If we can’t quantify what Hellickson does to keep this rate high, at least we can say he’s has the makeup to pitch under some pressure. Not great for a fantasy teams, but it’s still a good asset.

      I also agree with Ben in that Hellickson definitely modifies his approach with men on base. Here’s a look at his stats with – bases empty/men on base/men in scoring position.

      K% – 15.8/18.3/20.1
      HR/9 – 1.72/.62/.51

      In low leverage situations he has a 13.8% K% and 4.93xFIP
      In medium and high leverage he has an over 18% K% and under 4.2xFIP

      Hellickson is a better pitcher with men on base! I don’t know why he can’t pitch this way at the start of an inning, but if he could…

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      • danielschwartz.rotobanter says:

        WOW – nice find, SKob – can you let me know where you found this data for future reference. Excellent point & Thanks.

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      • SKob says:

        On the Fangraphs player page there is a ‘Splits’ tab. It breaks down all the components that I mentioned.

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  5. Kyle says:

    I think this stems from his mastery of the changeup. Unlike breaking pitches, changeups usually have the same spin as a fastball making it FAR harder for hitters to pick up. Couple this with the fact that his highest percentage of changeups come in fastball counts and you have some off-balance hitters. This creates weak contact, which explains the low BABIP. Put all this together with the fact he’ll still be pitching to catching god Jose Molina and I see no reason why he won’t continue his success.

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  6. JonL says:

    across 300+ innings @ AA and AAA Hellickson posted a LOB% of 78.4%. Not far off his MLB mark (400+) innings.

    I’m not really sure what could be considered “normal” for minor leagues. However, a quick scan showed that 78.4% would have been top-5 (AAA) for either 2012 or 2011.

    700+ innings of LOB% > 80%. That’s sounds a little more reliable.

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  7. Fatbot says:

    Appreciate the historical comps, but a way more in-depth analysis can be found: here.

    Interesting to see the Rays staff as a whole having LOB% success. Perhaps a bit more research is in order to see if the LOB% luck can be mitigated by a team focus. Kind of like how Righetti/SF Giants have seemingly turned HR/FB% from luck into a skill set.

    But to me the telling stat is his BB% with runners on versus empty, which almost doubles with RISP. In the windup he cruises on his good but not elite talent. But from the stretch he’s a mental bulldog and ups his game — he refuses to give in. If the hitter wants to be the RBI hero, he’s gonna have to connect on a pitch outside the zone, because Hellickson isn’t grooving anything when the pressure is on. So you get flailing swings and weak contact.

    What this tells me is Hellboy is a true baseball player, not just a freak of talent. Why I love him and hate Greinke, who wets himself anytime anyone gets on base then runs to cry to his therapist.

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      • Glen says:

        Interesting stuff and I completely agree that Hellickson seems to have the mentality to excel under pressure. The pitch information is interesting, however basic: fastballs and cutters on the corners, curves and changeups down. That doesn’t tell us anything. Pitch information on when in counts would be much more telling. I’m a Red Sox fan so I’ve seen him pitch many times. What I’ve seen him do so many times with men on base is pitch backwards. He seems to have tremendous confidence in throwing his changeup when behind in the count, especially when he feels he has an aggressive hitter at the plate. This would explain his ability to get more ground balls, K’s and IFFB with RISP. I can’t prove this and don’t have time right now but I’d be willing to bet there is a strong correlation.

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  8. Transmission says:

    Echoing what several people have found in Hellickson’s splits, it seems like every time I watched a game Helli pitched last year (no more than three or four), the Rays’ announcers would carry on about how emotionally restrained and composed Hellickson is. They’d regularly talk about this in terms of superlatives, the calmest they’d ever seen, preternaturally calm, and so forth, and this talk invariably came up as Hellickson was walking off of the mound after getting out of some jam. Anyway, Rays announcers subjective first-hand observations match very well with the data. Maybe the guy just has some freakishly elite level of self-composure and discipline?

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  9. Swfc-dan says:

    Some great stuff in here guys, nice work.

    I was always a hellboy disbeliever, but having read this maybe he really is capable of continuing his success.

    Someone who’s an average pitcher who just uses his D, until he gets in jams and then he really knuckles down and turns into a bulldog who just won’t give in. Modern day Greg Maddog Maddux?

    All about that nasty changepiece, and Maddux had one of those.

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    • Aj says:

      If he does it again this year it will probably have to get put into the Matt Cain territory of “idk how but he just breaks the statistical mold of success”. Until his stuff falls off he will probably be extremely viable, just gotta wait around til he loses FB mph and turns into Zito 2.0. The Rays amazing defensive situation probably helps him a good deal but he still has to make pitches, curious how the Rays value him going forward. If they lowball or trade him off before even a James Shields type contract you’ll know they think its mostly there system creating his stats and hes not worth paying for.

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    • Aj says:

      Also Maddux at 26 had WAY better stuff then Hellickson. He was elite just from stuff standpoint til he got older. Early Maddux had control issues ect.

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  10. 4233 says:

    Matheus,reliever for the Nationals is brilliant when there are runners on base and actually, even better when the bases are juiced!! something to see..That is something that can’t be teached, and if I were a Ray fan, I would just enjoy instead of statistically pull him apart…

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