Jeremy Hellickson: Strikeouts Cometh

Join me! The rabbit hole is suspiciously warm.

The Tampa Bay Rays are now down 1-2 in the ALDS, placing their hopes for a Rangers rout on the shoulders of rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. The so-called Hellboy takes the mound at 2:07 p.m. ET today, facing Rangers lefty Matt Harrison.

The match-up, to say the least, favors the Rangers. Not only does Harrison have the edge in FIP (3.52), xFIP (3.85), and SIERA (3.94), he has the added bonus of a seemingly normal BABIP (.290) and LOB% (72.3%). Hellickson has only an ERA edge (2.95); the rest suggests impending doom: 4.44 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, 4.63 SIERA, .223 BABIP, and 82.0% LOB%.

Well, Hellickson does have at least one major thing going for him: A serious and unusual strikeout regression.

It presently appears that the bulk of Hellickson’s ERA success has come on the weight of his crazy good BABIP. As Jeff Zimmerman pointed out, Hellickson does not have a history (in the minors) of sporting a low BABIP, and Paul Swydan, in his breakdown of this series, shows equal disregard of Hellickson’s shiny ERA.

The truth is, this kind of BABIP does not last:

When a player sustains a low BABIP, he can do so pretty much through only two measures: (1) inducing a good deal of fly balls (which Hellickson does) and/or (2) inducing a lot of O-Zone (outside the zone) contact (a la Matt Cain). But even then, these low-BABIP pitchers like Cain and Shaun Marcum still have relatively normal BABIPs on their batted ball types.

As we see above, Hellickson does not.

So maybe he’s inducing a lot of contact outside the zone?

Indeed, Hellickson gets a good deal of bad contact (still not enough to warrant a .220ish BABIP), but here we encounter something unexpected: An impressive 9.7% swinging strike rate. Despite only a meager 15.1% K-rate, Hellickson sported the 24th highest swinging strike rate among all starters.

This is a fact the good Mr. Mike Podhorzer noticed over at Rotographs, suggesting back in June that Hellickson was due a strikeout improvement of the remainder of the season. And frankly, Podhorzer appears right on.

Looking at the 35 best swinging-strike starters in the league, we realize either Jeremy Hellickson is an absolute, hated-even-by-his-mother kind of freak, or a pitcher poised to join some very special company:

So, Hellickson, with an elite 9.7% swinging strike rate, has a pedestrian 15% K-rate. What if his K-rate were actually in step with his swinging strike rate? Well, let’s see. Assuming he gets, I dunno, a 20% K-rate (which is 1.7% lower than the above group), then instead of 117 strikeouts this year, he would have had about 155 — which would make for a much better 4.04 FIP.

If he managed a mere 18% K, then his FIP would be in the 4.20 neighborhood. At the group average — 21.7% — he would sport a 3.90 FIP. Gio Gonzalez has a 9.5% swinging strike rate, but 22.8% K-rate — that could put Hellboy in the 3.81 region.

Which is to say: Hellickson, who is only 24 years old and in his first big league season, could and should very easily improve his strikeouts — frankly, it would be a mystery if he does not. So, crazy BABIP or not, the Rays still have a genuine commodity in the unflappable young rookie — as well as a match-up more even than it appears for this afternoon.

When I say Hellickson is poised to join special company, I mean so. Examine below the aforementioned 35 pitchers:

Name Team SwStr%  2011 K%
Michael Pineda Mariners 11.8% 24.9%
Brandon Morrow Blue Jays 11.5% 22.8%
Cole Hamels Phillies 11.3% 22.8%
Matt Garza Cubs 11.2% 23.5%
CC Sabathia Yankees 11.2% 23.4%
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 11.1% 27.2%
Anibal Sanchez Marlins 10.9% 24.3%
Roy Halladay Phillies 10.8% 23.6%
Tim Lincecum Giants 10.7% 24.4%
James Shields Rays 10.7% 23.1%
Mat Latos Padres 10.6% 23.2%
Zack Greinke Brewers 10.6% 28.1%
Chris Capuano Mets 10.5% 21.0%
Jaime Garcia Cardinals 10.5% 18.9%
Bud Norris Astros 10.5% 22.1%
Josh Beckett Red Sox 10.5% 22.8%
Shaun Marcum Brewers 10.3% 19.2%
Hiroki Kuroda Dodgers 10.3% 19.2%
Justin Verlander Tigers 10.2% 25.8%
A.J. Burnett Yankees 10.0% 20.7%
Dan Haren Angels 9.9% 20.2%
Daniel Hudson Diamondbacks 9.9% 18.4%
Max Scherzer Tigers 9.8% 20.9%
Jeremy Hellickson Rays 9.7% 15.1%
Ricky Romero Blue Jays 9.6% 19.4%
Gio Gonzalez Athletics 9.5% 22.8%
Cliff Lee Phillies 9.3% 25.9%
John Danks White Sox 9.3% 18.5%
Ryan Dempster Cubs 9.3% 21.7%
Chris Carpenter Cardinals 9.2% 19.2%
Edwin Jackson – – – 9.2% 17.2%
Madison Bumgarner Giants 9.2% 22.6%
Philip Humber White Sox 9.1% 17.2%
Matt Cain Giants 9.1% 19.7%
Jered Weaver Angels 9.1% 21.4%
Average 10.2% 21.7%

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Shawn Coleman
12 years ago

Hellickson always has been praised for having a good change up. I did not see it in the graphs above, but could the out of the zone contact rate be for pitches that are low, and thus show he could maintain that profile as a pitcher since the change up is a strength!