Reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is showing his success from a year ago was no fluke, and is now looking like one of the top pitchers in the American League. Hellickson is 4-1 on the season with a 2.73 ERA in 56 innings pitched and has struck out 38 batters against only 19 walks. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has made 6 of his 9 starts against elite offenses that rank in the top-10 in baseball in runs scored. Let’s take a look at how Hellickson has been able to have success during the 2012 season.
Hellickson, in his 2nd big league season now, has never been a dominant strikeout pitcher, possessing a mediocre K rate and a below-average K/BB rate. The Rays righty uses 4 pitches a fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball, all of which are above average, with none being spectacular. When Hellickson does get his strikeouts he primarily uses his 90-93 mph fastball and baffles batters with his change-up, which is his most effective pitch. He accumulates only 6 outs per every 9 innings pitched from strikeouts, so Hellickson has to find another way to get batters out. This is where his ability to generate ground balls and the positioning of the Rays defense come into play.
For the 2nd straight season the Rays righty has had one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and the league average most seasons sits around .295. Last season Hellickson posted the lowest opponent’s BABIP in baseball at .223, which means that the average batter turned into a deadball-era hitter when the put the ball in play. And this year its been more of the same as he has limited AL hitters to a .247 BABIP, another 50 points below league average. Some around baseball assumed that Hellickson is just getting lucky but he shrugs that off as well saying “I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play.”
Hellickson’s strategy is one of the most intelligent in baseball and he has become the master at manipulating batters to hit into one of Tampa Bay’s many shifts. A year ago the Rays had the best defense in baseball, turning a league leading 72.4% of all balls in play into outs. Tampa also had the best fielding percentage in the league, and was rated highest in defensive runs saved as well. This trend has carried over in 2012 as well.
Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and while its too early to look at defensive statistics due to small sample size, the Rays have committed the most errors in baseball, ranking in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They do rate 3rd in baseball in defensive runs saved, and Joe Maddon’s shifts coupled with Hellickson’s pinpoint location can carve up opposing offenses, reducing hitters to meek ground outs and infield pop-ups.
A perfect example comes from his most recent win against the Boston Red Sox, when the shift took away multiple hits, including a couple from David Ortiz. Hellickson pounded Ortiz low and away repeatedly with his fastball and cutter, getting the Boston slugger to successfully roll over for groundouts into the overshift. The Rays young right-hander dominated most of the Red Sox lineup in a similar fashion, winning his May 16th outing 2-1.
Hellickson has also been able to up his ground ball rate so far this season. He currently generates ground balls on an excellent 40.3% of all batters he faces. This is a very important skill because ground balls are more easily turned into outs and far less likely to go for extra-base hits when they do get through the infield. This also allows Hellickson to keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games, because he can get hitters out earlier in at-bats, a tough skill for young, talented pitchers to master. This will pay dividends over the long season, and should keep Hellickson’s arm strong deep into September.
It should be no surprise that Jeremy Hellickson has been able to repeat his success from last season. Anyone who says that he is a lucky pitcher who only relies on his excellent defense to bail him out is missing the point. Instead of trying to get every hitter out himself, Hellickson allows batters to make weak or partial contact with the baseball, which generates easy outs, creating a very pleasing style of pitching to watch.