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.