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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.