Originally posted on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 4/12/13
Over the last two seasons, Hellickson has finished first in baseball in ERA-FIP; his ERA was 1.50 points lower than his FIP in 2012 and 1.49 points lower in 2011. The second place finishers were Jered Weaver with 0.93 in 2012 and Ricky Romero with 1.28 in 2011. Clearly Hellickson is in a class of his own.The question has been asked over and over again — how does he outperform his FIP every single year? And he doesn’t just outperform his FIP, he basically questions the stats’ integrity and tosses it aside in a ditch to die. Excuse me as I delve into a little script-writing:Pro-Hellickson baseball fan: “Hey! You see that Hellickson guy? He’s one hell of a pitcher!”Anti-Hellickson baseball fan: “Ha! Enjoy it while it lasts, bro. Hellickson is due to regress towards his mediocre FIP rates one of these years.”PHBF: “You wish, we’ve seen Matt Cain do it for years, why do you have to pick on The Hell-raiser?”AHBF: “Is that what you guys are calling him now? He has posted below-average strikeout and walk rates for two years, he’s not even close to the level of pitching that Cain brings to the table.”PHBF: “Whatever, you’re an ass.”So, that’s basically the conversation I imagine in my head when it comes to Hellickson vs. Cain, but let’s compare them for real to show how different both pitchers actually are.Right off the bat we can stop with the Cain and Hellickson comparisons. Cain is clearly a better overall pitcher as he’s an above-average pitcher in K%, BB%, HR/9, and GB/FB rate while Hellickson is the exact opposite.So why is Hellickson able to keep such low BABIP rates and strand so many runners?  Well, simply put, Hellickson has a special set of skills (some aren’t actual skills) to allow him to succeed as a pitcher despite his lack of another certain set of skills. Confused yet? It’s ok, just keep reading.Through two starts, Hellickson has a 6.35 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 6.1 K%, and 8.2 BB% and I’m about to tell you why you should be buying, not selling, for the rest of 2013.Tampa Bay’s DefenseThere’s no doubt that the Rays are proud defenders of the diamond; from 2010-2011 the team used a defensive shift 437 times, which was by far the most in the majors (2nd most was 278). The results show on the field, too, as the Rays ranked first in UZR/150 in 2011 (9.5) and fourth in 2012 (3.4). I’m not saying UZR/150 is the end-all-be-all defensive statistic for fielding prowess, but it’s at least a way to quantify it.Another source of quantifying the Rays’ diamond dominance comes from The Fielding Bible, who calculated that the Rays’ defense saved the team 85 runs in the 2011 season. To put that into perspective, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the best in the National League with 54 runs saved and the second-best team in the American League were the Los Angeles Angels at 29 runs saved. Yup, the Rays were better than both teams combined. It’s not 2011 anymore, but the Rays clearly have a philosophy of “defense first.”So what does this mean in terms of Hellickson’s pitching statistics? Well a good defense will get to more balls in play so those who perennially point to Hellickson’s low BABIP rates as a token of good luck I’d have to agree — he’s one lucky man to be pitching with that defense behind him. It’s just that his low BABIP itself isn’t a gift from a higher power — unless you are a Rays fanatic who worships Joe Maddon.Just as a fun experiment, we took the Rays’ 85 runs saved metric and broke it down to 0.06 runs per inning. That means the Rays defense saved 11 runs over Hellickson’s 180 innings pitched that season. If he had a league-average defense behind him then his ERA would have been 3.47 instead of 2.95.Tropicana FieldIn addition to the team’s great fielding, the Rays also call one of the league’s top pitching parks their home. Since 2008, Tropicana Field has finished outside the worst-five hitter’s parks, in terms of hits, only once (2009). In that same time frame, The Trop has finished with a below average park factor for runs in every year, including a league-worst 0.80 mark in 2010. This ballpark suppresses offense almost to the extent of Petco Park, but doesn’t get the “cred.”Of course, we have that fact that Hellickson posted a better BABIP on the road (.239) last year than at home (.278), but the conclusion I’m drawing is that a great defense and 90-or-so guaranteed innings in a great pitcher’s park should almost always equal to a BABIP closer to the league leader than the league average.Better pitching from the stretchSome pitchers are better pitching from the stretch than from a full wind up. Well, Hellickson is one of those guys and if you look at his 2012 splits the numbers aren’t even that close:The numbers tell the whole story. From the stretch, Hellickson is able to induce far more ground balls, which, in turn, helps him keep the ball in the park. In fact, in 2012, he allowed 20 of his 25 home runs (80%) with the bases empty and in 2011, 15 of his 21 homers (71.4%) were of the solo variety. If the majority of his homers allowed come with the bases empty then that’s a whole lot of damage control.Separation between fastball and changeupA great way to gain an advantage over hitters is by deceptively changing speeds and there were three pitchers in 2012 who jumped out at me — Chris Capuano, Jarrod Parker, and Hellickson. These three pitchers had one thing in common; they threw the changeup more than 20% of the time that registered at least a 10 MPH slower than their fastball. Of course, the 10 MPH threshold is arbitrary and isn’t a requirement to be a good pitcher — the aforementioned Cain, along with many other aces, has very little separation between his fastball and changeup — but some pitchers need the extra advantage.It’s not a surprise that when I went over to BrooksBaseball.net I found that Hellickson’s changeup was the pitch that generated the most swings in 2012 at 55.4%. Not coincidentally, his changeup also induced the highest whiff rate at 18.1%. If you take a look at his release points on both his fastball and changeup you can see why hitters have such a difficult time differentiating between the two and by the time they figure it out, it’s too late.Red = Changeup; Blue = FastballCourtesy: Fangraphs.comIf the ball is coming from the same spot and looks like a 91 MPH fastball, but ends up coming in at 77 MPH you can bet that the hitter is going to look foolish at the plate.Rest of season outlookHe’s off to a rocky start this year and his next start will come against the Red Sox at Fenway Park where he owns a 4.97 ERA with a 10 K/15 BB ratio in 25.1 innings over the last three seasons. The chances are that his season is going to get a little bit worse before it starts to get better. The savvy fantasy owner will wait until this weekend passes with hopes that his owner drops him or to have him included as a throw-in at the end of a deal.Listen, Hellickson isn’t going to dazzle you with great strikeout rates or a sub-1.10 WHIP, but he’s a great candidate for a low-3.00 ERA, if not better, and double-digit wins. However, if you play your cards right you should be able to get him for next to nothing. After this weekend’s start against the Red Sox not many people will be talking about how much they want Hellickson, which is the perfect time to strike.
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