Good Luck Hitting Ryan Helsley’s Fastball

Ryan Helsley
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s the best reliever in baseball? There are multiple ways to go about answering that question. You could pick the guy with the lowest projected ERA; that’s Josh Hader, with Emmanuel Clase, Liam Hendriks, and Taylor Rogers close behind. You could pick the guy with the best reputation; I’d go with Hendriks or Hader, but if you’re a giant Raisel Iglesias or Aroldis Chapman fan, I wouldn’t hold it against you.

If you want to look at what’s happening on the field, though, the best reliever in baseball is clearly Ryan Helsley. It’s not “probably Ryan Helsley.” It’s not “Ryan Helsley is in the conversation.” It’s just Ryan Helsley. He’s been absolutely dominant to start the year, so dominant that I’m not sure I have the right words for it.

If you follow the NL Central, you’ve surely heard of Helsley. He’s been in the majors for parts of the last four seasons as a flamethrowing reliever, and that part isn’t changing. He topped out at 103 mph this weekend, the kind of heat that makes Pitching Ninja sprint to his computer and search for the right emoji (he used fire, if you’re keeping score at home). But that pitch reduces Helsley’s performance to “he throws hard sometimes,” which undersells him to a comical extent.

Speaking of comical, have you seen Helsley’s stats this year? His ERA? Zero, obviously. Strikeout rate? He’s at 61.5%, and no, that isn’t a typo. No other pitcher who has thrown five or more innings is even above 50%. Walk rate? Zero as well — Helsley is striking batters out so quickly that he doesn’t have time to walk them. Swinging-strike rate? I had to check this one a few times to make sure it was right: 27%. That’s right; more than a quarter of the pitches he throws end up with a swing and a miss. Not more than a quarter of swings — more than a quarter of pitches.

I’ve mentioned one of my favorite silly statistics a few times here: a “Kimbrel,” which is an appearance with a FIP below zero. FIP is an ERA estimator, but it’s just an estimator, meant to work over larger samples and closer to league average. If you throw one inning and strike out two batters without walking anyone or giving up a home run, you’ll end up with a FIP below zero. If you go for four outs, walk a batter, and strike four batters out, you’ll get there as well. It’s a good dominant reliever stat: Hendriks led everyone last year with 28 Kimbrels, and Iglesias and Paul Sewald (!) tied for second with 22.

Helsley is Kimbreling his entire 2022 season. He has a -0.75 FIP so far this year. It makes FIP sound like a broken statistic. Heck, he has an xFIP below zero (-0.12), which beggars belief. xFIP assigns a league-average home run rate to every batted ball, so a fly ball is worth 10.1% of a home run in 2022’s low-homer environment. If you strike out two of the three batters you face, but the next one hits a fly ball, you won’t have a negative xFIP. It’s nearly impossible — and Helsley is doing it for the whole season.

Helsley has made seven appearances this year. Four have spanned more than an inning; he was a starter in the minors, though not in this current fire-breathing form. In five of those seven appearances, he’s put up a negative FIP. Put another way: when he goes on the mound, the other team isn’t doing anything. His worst appearances, at least by FIP, were two one-inning relief appearances. Both were three up, three down. Both had one strikeout. His other five appearances were better.

The statistics are inherently silly in samples this small, but they’re still bonkers. He’s faced 26 batters and struck out 16. He’s fallen behind in the count 2–0 twice — and struck both of those batters out. He’s fallen behind 3–1 twice; you guessed it, they both ended up as strikeouts. Logan Webb leads baseball with 126 batters faced and has only four more strikeouts than Helsley. Madison Bumgarner has a 1.17 ERA over five starts and fewer strikeouts than Helsley. It’s all so absurd.

The complete lack of walks is a key part of what makes his statline look so gobsmacking. A 61.5% strikeout rate? Funny. A 61.5% strikeout rate and no walks? You’re supposed to get those strikeouts by throwing chase pitches or something. And Helsley is hardly some zone-filling monster; before this year, he had an 11.4% walk rate in the big leagues, and we projected him for roughly the same mark this year.

Want to walk fewer batters? Throw a ton of pitches in the strike zone. So of course, per Statcast, 2022 is the lowest zone rate of Helsley’s career. But that’s misleading; he’s been ahead in the count quite frequently this year, which naturally lends itself to leaving the zone and looking for chases. What about on the first pitch of an at-bat? Yeah, again, lowest zone rate.

But even if he reaches a 1–0 count (which has happened a lot, in 42.6% of his batters faced so far), Helsley has a cheat code to get back into the at-bat; he can throw his fastball wherever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants, and opposing hitters haven’t been able to stop him.

Ah, yes, it’s good to have stuff. Helsley’s fastball is patently absurd. If you throw a four-seamer, as he does, you want two things most of all: velocity and ride. He added both of those this offseason:

Helsley’s Fastball Shape by Year
Year Velo (mph) xMov (in) zMov (in)
2019 97.9 -4.0 8.5
2020 97.2 -1.9 8.1
2021 97.7 -1.9 8.8
2022 99.4 -1.8 9.7

His fastball drops just nine inches on its trip homeward, inclusive of gravity. That’s really hard to think about; pitches just move downward on their path to the plate. They start on a line, but gravity is too strong. All the spin in the world can’t fight gravity for long. That’s just how they work. Helsley’s is almost a frozen rope; by adding velocity and ride, the ball falls significantly less on its path home — 2.1 inches less than it did even last year, when it was already an excellent pitch.

When I’m dreaming on what a pitcher could become, I like to use Alex Chamberlain’s pitch comparison tool, and Helsley’s fastball is a doozy. In the top 10 alone, you’ll find two years of Walker Buehler fastballs, 2019–21 Jacob deGrom, and, less excitingly, a few odd years of Trevor May. Even those May years, though, were years where he had an excellent fastball. What do those guys have in common? They have huge backspinning fastballs that either miss bats up in the zone or freeze batters (and still miss some bats) down in the zone.

The tool looks at movement, release point, velocity, and approach angle to calculate similarity. It definitely doesn’t capture the entire tapestry of pitching, particularly deception and command. I’m not suggesting that Ryan Helsley is now relief Jacob deGrom. But with its current shape and velocity, there’s no arguing that it’s one of the best fastballs in baseball. And it’s faster than those; the tool looks for things that are mostly similar, but Buehler isn’t pumping 103 anytime soon. Some pitchers can touch 100. Some pitchers can throw with elite four-seam movement. Doing both means you’re going to put up excellent numbers.

To wit, Helsley’s fastball has garnered an absurd 22.2% swinging-strike rate this year (including foul tips), the seventh-best mark in baseball. When batters swing, they come up empty 40% of the time, sixth-best. Batters have put four fastballs into play, so we certainly don’t have the sample size to say anything about that, but those four balls have been two grounders and two lazy fly balls. Hitters look downright uncomfortable against it, and they should. It’s a UFO: pretty much the fastest fastball they’ll see all year, and gravity-defying at that.

Here’s what it looks like when a professional hitter tries to make contact with a figment of their imagination:

Location, schmocation. I could have shown you one where he painted the top of the zone — his 103-mph missile to Ketel Marte was one — but Helsley doesn’t always need to be fine. With that kind of movement, batters can track it and get a good pitch to hit and still come up empty. That’s not to say there won’t be loud contact — he throws so hard and with such an upward plane that making contact with one of these in the upper third will almost certainly produce a loud fly ball — but there just won’t be much contact. This looks a lot like peak Aroldis Chapman from the right side, and he ran similarly ludicrous swinging-strike rates for years.

Like Chapman, Helsley punishes batters for how much they have to focus on his fastball. If you’re not gearing up early for that thing, you’re not hitting it, which means that when he changes speeds, it’s time to say goodnight. His slider (Statcast calls it a cutter, potato potahto) has a 37.8% swinging-strike rate. I don’t have anything clever to say about that. Just watch Garrett Cooper start a 100-mph swing, only to flail at a pitch in the dirt:

On its own, that’s not one of the best breaking balls in baseball. It’s got some bite, but not a ton, and his command isn’t pinpoint. But if you’re gearing up to slay a dragon, your timing’s not going to be great on a breaking ball below the zone. Batters are chasing 60% of the sliders Helsley misses the zone with. It’s unconscionable. We’re still early in the season, but these are the kinds of numbers that ultra-premium closers put up when they throw their secondary pitch.

Seemingly just for fun, Helsley also has a tertiary pitch, a curveball with sharp downward break. It’s probably unnecessary when his two headlining pitches play so well against each other, but it has a purpose nonetheless: it’s a breaking ball he can throw for a strike, and it actually sports the highest zone rate of his three pitches so far. Is some of that because he’s left it in the zone accidentally? Maybe! But at 20 ticks slower than his fastball, it’s not a peach to hit either:

It does feel strange to spend so much time talking about Helsley’s secondaries when the fastball is the main event, but I want to drive home the point that he’s got classic overpowering-fireballer stuff. A hard slider and something else you can spot for a strike if necessary makes for exactly what you want behind your top-tier fastball. He won’t keep up his no-walks pace, but he doesn’t need to. If batters make contact this rarely, you can put runners on base and then just strike out whoever comes up next often enough that the whole package will work out just fine.

I don’t know if Helsley will maintain his fastball velocity and shape all year. He didn’t throw this hard last year, or impart this much spin on the ball. But if it’s here to stay, and if he can continue to locate it in the general vicinity of the strike zone, I’ve seen enough to be sure: Ryan Helsley is one of the best late-inning relievers in baseball, not only in terms of this year’s statistics, but also going forward.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Gotta hand it to FG for this one. Don’t think I saw it before…

“FanGraphs is down for the moment.
Please rely on the eye test until we get back up and running!”