The Hardball Times took a look at Jeremy Hellickson’s stats to see if he has just been “lucky” the last couple of years, and whether now is a good time to trade the young hurler.

The argument centers around Helly’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Hellickson’s BABIP has been unusually low, .223 in 2011 (lowest in MLB) and .261 in 2012 (6th lowest in MLB). In other words, when batters hit the ball fair against Hellickson, they are getting a lot fewer basehits than they get against other pitchers.

Typically, when you see a pitcher with a very low BABIP it is a sign that they have been “lucky” and eventually those balls are going to start falling for basehits. And if that happens, then Hellickson’s ERA is going to start looking more like his FIP (4.44 in 2011 and 4.60 in 2012)

The other argument is that some pitchers have a natural ability to produce “weak contact” from hitters. This is generally seen in pitchers like Mariano Rivera, who have pitches with good horizontal movement. Batters may still make contact, but there is a good chance they will miss the sweetspot on the bat (Rivera is famous for breaking a lot of bats).

So, is Hellickson lucky or just really good?

While there are a number of different ways to determine what a pitcher’s BABIP should be, a simple method (albeit not necessarily the best) is to look at how often batters hit line drives and add 12%.

For Hellickson, his Line Drive rate the past two seasons were fairly consistent and very average at 20.0% in 2011 (58th out of 90 starting pitchers) and 21.0% in 2012 (46th out of 85 starting pitchers).

Based on those numbers, it doesn’t appear that Hellickson is creating “weak contact” any more than other pitchers, and his BABIP would be expected to have been .320 in 2011 and .330 in 2012, much higher than his actual numbers.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Hellickson is all of a sudden going to suck. But if his ERA does go up in 2013, it won’t necessarily mean he is having a “bad season.” It could just be a more accurate reflection of how he has pitched the last two years.

 
 

12 Comments

  1. Gus says:

    Shouldn’t this analysis consider Hellickson fields his position better than anybody else in the league? If Price could field like Hellickson, he’d be the best pitcher of the last 20 years (he is not far off as it is).

    • Cork Gaines says:

      Hellickson is good with the glove, but It doesn’t have that much of an impact on his ERA just because pitchers don’t field the ball very often. In 31 games, Helly had 40 fielding chances. 17 of those were pop-ups/linedrives. 23 were groundballs. Of those, he had 21 assists (including 2 double-plays started) and 2 errors.

      Now compare that to David Price: DP had 37 fieldiing chances. 6 of those were linedrives/pop-ups. And 31 were groundballs. Of those, he had 28 assists (including 4 double-plays started) and 3 errors.

      So Hellickson had one fewer error and was directly responsible for 2 more outs (40 to 38). Over the course of an entire season, that’s not going to be a huge impact on ERA.

  2. Kevin says:

    It isn’t luck nor skill, it’s playing in front of a good defense.

    • Cork Gaines says:

      Defense might help. But if that were the major reason, the other pitchers would also have a ridiculously low BABIP and an ERA that was significantly lower than their FIP. But we dont see that at all. James Shields’s ERA (3.52) in 2012 was actually higher than his FIP (3.47). Matt Moore’s ERA (3.81) was nearly identical to his FIP (3.93). Alex Cobb’s ERA (4.03) was higher than his FIP (3.67). Price’s ERA (2.56) was a little better than his FIP (3.05), but the difference was not nearly as big as Hellickson’s. Also, Price’s ERA in 2011 (3.49) was higher than his FIP (3.32).

      On top of that, by almost any measure, the defense was not nearly as good in 2012 as 2011 and yet Hellickson’s BABIP didn’t change.

      • Tom says:

        Cork,
        I think part of the reason for his low BABIP could be explained by his low GB rate. Cobb, Price, and Shields all have GB Rates between 52-58% while Helli is at 41% (MM is actually worse at 37%). GB pitchers usually have a higher BABIP. Helli’s low BABIP also was not as extreme as last years, he was at .262 while all of the other starters were between .285-.295.

        • Gus says:

          Tom beat me to it. But the point is that if you are a flyball pitcher playing in a pitcher’s park with excellent OF defense behind you, that will really help your BABIP.

          As to my earlier point about Hellickson fielding his position better than Price, I’d note that Price pitched 33 more innings than Helly and got 3 fewer chances than Helly (even though Helly is a fly-ball pitcher). Not sure if there is zone-rating for the range of a pitcher, but my observations is that Price has many balls hit back up the middle that he doesn’t get to (unless it hits him), whereas Hellickson is much niftier on grounders (and covering 1B); the difference in their sizes is a contributing factor I’m sure.

        • Cork Gaines says:

          but not all of those non-groundballs are flyballs. Hellickson had fewer flyballs than Moore and yet we don’t see the same BABIP advantage. And it wasn’t that much higher than Shields. The pitchers also have very similar linedrive rates. For some reason those FBs and LDs were turning into outs a lot more for Helly than for Moore or Shields.

          • Gus says:

            One more pragmatic observation — he works quickly. So his defense is better. Also, they avoided pitching him in Yankee Stadium (where lazy fly balls are HRs) after he got killed there in the summer of 2011.

            Hellickson v. Moore: Moore tipped his pitches and got crushed when he was hit (i part because the fastball was coming in so hard); Hellickson didn’t have that problem.

            Hellickson v. Shields: Tougher to distinguish; Shields when he is off is up in the zone more; otherwise I have no explanation.

            It is one of the mysteries of baseball I guess. But good fielder of his poistion, combined with favorable park and higher flyball rates, working quickly to enhance his defenders — all of that is working in his favor. I recall him being confounding when in the minors as well. He just is.

  3. Dave L says:

    If M Rivera is known for breaking bats, Helli leads the league in batsman slamming their bat into the basepath and throwing it away in disgust as in damn I should have nailed that one another playable ball heads to a waiting Rays defender.

    Some pitchers confound the BABIP metric thier whole careers.

    The Rays dont play defense better for Jeremy but they sure play crappier offense for him, that’s well documented.

    They say clutch is bogus and evens out over a career but Helli just pitches better when men are on base as well.

    Plus he’s only 25 and poised as hell. he’s only going to get better.

    I’m guessing the trade talk isnt coming from The Rays but is fueled by his over anxious agent who wants to negotiate a deal NOW where he makes money not wait. I’m assuming an agent doesnt benefit as much with a guy going to arbitration on a yearly basis as Helli will with the Rays. He’s the one leading the whisper campaign.

    The arguement of hey trade him now as when his awesomeness continues and we have to pay him real money in arbitration after ROY, GG etc. begs the question, then wouldn’t we have benefitted from his continued excellent play in 2013-14?

    I bet JH is a more productive a pitcher over next 3 years 2013-15 than Shields will be. Time will tell of course.

  4. Sarah says:

    This is in response to Gus above – when you say he works quickly, are you basing that on some actual measure of pitcher delivery times, or on your own observations? Because as far as I can tell, Hellickson may work with reasonable speed with bases empty, but with runners on base he becomes Josh Beckett-like.

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