It wasn't supposed to go like this for Jeremy Hellickson. He came through the Tampa Bay Rays system as a blue-chip prospect, landing in the top 10 of industry lists ahead of the 2011 season after a top-20 showing the year before that. He proved him deserving of such high praise immediately with a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011 that included 189 innings of a 2.95 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP. The skills suggested he was way over his head with just a 15% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate, but he seemed adept at inducing poor contact (.223 BABIP) and stranding runners (82% LOB) although, there was likely some luck mixed in, too.
When he followed it up with a very similar 2012 season (3.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 17% K, 8% BB, .261 BABIP, 83% LOB), he started to gain a reputation as someone who could out-pitch his base skills and many believed the 25-year old would still improve those skills to close the gap between his ERA and ERA indicators (4.44, 4.60 FIP totals in those two seasons). He did improve his skills in 2013 – albeit incrementally – with an 18% K rate and 7% walk rate, but the stranding and weak-contact pieces that we started to think might've been skills for him completely fell apart with a 66% LOB and .307 BABIP leaving him with a 5.17 ERA in 174 innings.
His chance to bounce back from the brutal 2013 was hampered by an elbow surgery that was originally supposed to cost him around a month or so of the regular season, but ended up pushing his 2014 debut to July 8th. The results were better with a 4.52 ERA in 63.7 innings, while the FIP continued to tick downward at 4.15. Interestingly, his FIP in the two awful results years (4.20 in 237.7 IP despite a 5.00 ERA) was better than what he did during his first two years (4.52 in 366 IP w/a 3.02 ERA). He was dealt to Arizona this past offseason in a move that barely drew any attention as Hellickson's star has waned considerably.
Two months into this year with his new team, Hellickson was toting a 5.08 ERA through 56.7 innings with just 39 strikeouts (16%), 18 walks (7%), and eight homers (1.3 HR/9). It's been a different story in the last two months for Hellickson even though the surface results might not suggest as much. He has just a 4.06 ERA in his last nine starts which is a marked improvement, but still not something you're dying to roster on your fantasy team. However, a deeper look might add to Hellickson's intrigue.
He has 53 strikeouts (25%) and just 12 walks (6%) during this nine-start run, spanning 51 innings. His six homers still yield a 1.1 HR/9 which is at least part of the reason that the ERA is still not great despite the surge in skills though, honestly it's been two dud starts really holding back the ERA. The Dodgers dropped a 3.7 IP/5 ER on him and the Padres got him for a 5.3 IP/7 ER night, those 12 ER account for 52% of the 23 he's allowed during this run.
Seven of his last nine starts have seen Hellickson fan at least six batters, giving him a total of 10 such starts this year which is a career-high. His previous career-high of eight such games was reached in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He had just four last year, but he was limited to 13 starts. He had a 19% K rate so had he held up, he might've set a new high in 6+ K games last year. So what's driving this relative surge in strikeouts?
To figure this out, let's look at his career as two different parts: 2011-13 and 2014-15. With those as our splits, a clear factor emerges as the driving force behind Hellickson's newly found strikeouts: the curveball. From '11-13, the curve held batters to a .624 OPS with a 33% K rate in 278 PA, but the last two seasons it has been markedly better with a .470 OPS and 42% K rate in 142 PA. He's using it much more, too, going from 13% usage to 18% usage. Perhaps this jump in strikeouts shouldn't be that big of a surprise considering that Hellickson has held a 10% swinging strike rate for virtually his entire career.
His rates by season: 13% (36 IP in 2010), 10%, 9%, 10%, 10%, and 11% this year. Usually doubling a swinging strike rate is a good shorthand for an expected strike rate and yet this is his first season at 20% (outside of a 22% in that small sample of '10). The next step is getting the results to follow as his 4.60 ERA and 1.32 WHIP aren't helping anyone, but he has a much better foundation of skills than he did in Tampa Bay.
In addition to the surge in strikeouts, Hellickson has also posted a career-best 44% groundball rate which is especially important because of the HR issue highlighted earlier. I'm parsing the sample a bit at this point, but after allowing homers in each of his first three starts to open June, he has allowed just two total homers in his last six starts (35.3 IP), yielding a 0.5 HR/9. Unsurprisingly, that has also yielded his best stretch of results all year, too, with a 3.57 ERA (and 37 Ks).
Hellickson isn't a must add in all formats just yet, but he's someone you should definitely be keeping an eye on. He should be added in any NL-only leagues where he is still available. He is on just 17% of CBS leagues which means he is even more widely available at Yahoo! and ESPN as CBS generally caters to deeper leagues. This means he will be out there in plenty of NL-only leagues and almost all mixed leagues. I think 10-team mixers will still have plenty of more worthy candidates (perhaps some of these), but pitching-desperate clubs in 12-teamers might be ready to at least reserve Hellickson and anything beyond 12 teams can comfortably add him.