Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.
During the offseason, any conversation about Jeremy Hellickson quickly moved to the fact that for two straight seasons, he has had a rather sizable gap between his ERA and his FIP. In 2011, his 2.95 ERA bested his 4.44 FIP and last season, his 3.10 ERA came in well ahead of his 4.60 FIP. For his career, he has stranded 82.2% of his baserunners and has a 3.06 ERA compared to his 4.46 FIP.
Over the previous five seasons, 24 different starting pitchers posted a LOB% of at least 80 percent. James Shields did it in his magical 2011 season and both David Price and R.A. Dickey did it in 2012 on their way to the Cy Young Awards. Yet, Hellickson was the only pitcher to do it twice. Over the past two seasons, Hellickson has limited the 320 hitters he has faced with runners in scoring position to a .257 wOBA which is 13 points better than any other pitcher during that time frame (data via FanGraphs):
For two consecutive seasons, Hellickson was able to keep the Luck Dragons at arm's reach? If you are not familiar with the Luck Dragons, you need to watch this video:
This season, the Luck Dragons have attacked Hellickson with a vengeance. Despite the fact Hellickson is striking out hitters at the best rate of his career and is walking hitters at the lowest rate of his career, he has a 5.67 ERA. His 4.20 FIP shows his pitching has been slightly better, but his LOB% has fallen well below the 72 percent rate the Luck Dragons introduced and is currently just 61 percent.
What has hurt Hellickson the most is his numbers with men on base. Prior to 2013, Hellickson had held the opposition to a .225 batting average with nobody on base and a .696 OPS. When anyone was on base, Hellickson actually pitched better. Hitters hit .231 against him but Hellickson limited them to just a .656 OPS. One reason for that is that he actually had better mechanics pitching out of the stretch than he did from the wind-up.
A few months ago, Doug Thorburn of BaseballProspectus had this to say about Hellickson's mechanics:
Hellickson's lack of momentum and deliberate approach result in a long time-stamp, and on the above pitch it took him approximately 1.4 seconds from the time that he initiated leg lift until he reached foot strike. Hellickson typically has solid timing, but he over-rotated the shoulder axis on this pitch from the windup, a common result when the pitcher takes too long to reach foot strike. In such cases, trunk rotation begins too early relative to foot strike, with the predictable outcome of a pitch that misses down and to the glove side of his target.
The majority of pitchers pick up the pace with runners on, and Hellickson is no exception. On most of his pitches from the stretch, Hellickson will use his regular leg lift while recruiting more momentum, a combination that helps to extend his stride and yet quicken his pace, which clocked in at 1.1 seconds from leg lift to foot strike in the above pitch. His timing was closer to his ideal signature on this pitch, though he over-rotated far enough to miss a target that was set up below the zone. The greater momentum and deeper release point have persisted in Hellickson's delivery from the stretch for the past couple of years...
In reviewing some video from Hellickson this season, I see some inconsistencies from outing to outing. At times, he does not complete his follow-through after delivering his pitch which leads to pitches elevated in the strike zone that opposing hitters are punishing. Cutting off his delivery negates the gains Thorburn mentions with the deeper release point which is the fact hitters have less time to react to a pitch. When a pitcher like Hellickson is only working at 90-92 mph, every little bit helps.
Hellickson has already permitted 17 extra-base hits with runners on base this season which exceeds his previous career high of 16 over the entire 2010 season. The damage shows up in the graph below which shows Hellickson's Isolated Power allowed (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average):
If we separate it out by the two components, the results are not much better:
Given the fact Hellickson is still pitching well from the windup leads me to believe that this issue is mechanical more than anything related to pure bad luck. I have watched every pitch of his this season and I do not see the same pitcher that I enjoyed owning each of the previous two seasons. I see a pitcher who is struggling with his command (locating pitches within the strike zone) rather than one who frustrates hitters. He also lacks the same confidence in his curveball this season as he had last season.
Jim Hickey is one of the best pitching coaches in the business and he can fix what ails Hellickson, eventually. Even if Hellickson were to revert to form the rest of the way, he will not become the first pitcher to strand 80 percent of his runners for three consecutive seasons unless he goes on a Kris Medlen tear from here on out. He allowed eight earned runs in the sixth inning of his most recent start after pitching like the old Hellickson throughout the first five inning and that came off the heels of a strong performance against Baltimore. He has shown the stuff of someone that could have a sub-4.00 ERA the rest of the way at times, but the big inning continues to plague him and tear down the progress he begins to build up.