MLB Playoffs: Should Jeremy Hellickson be starting game four for the Tampa Bay Rays?

Al Messerschmidt

A Shieldsian question.

Jeremy Hellickson just turned in the best season of his still-young career. With a climbing strikeout rate and a dropping walk rate (now 18.3% and 6.8%, respectively), Hellickson is finally starting to deliver on the promise of his excellent minor league performance and 2010 cup of coffee.

Wait, that doesn't sound right. Let me try again.

Jeremy Hellickson is broken. Once theorized as a FIP-beater, a pitcher who could consistently post ERA's better than his peripherals, those middling peripherals have caught up with Hellickson and then some, and his ERA has ballooned to 5.17. Wat's more, Helly has limped to the end of the season, failing to make it even to the fifth inning in eight of his past eleven starts.

Rays fans are once again in a similar situation to the one the faced with James Shields in 2010, where Shields was extremely homer-prone despite posting the best walk and strikeout rate of his career (at the time). How you feel about Joe Maddon's decision to start Jeremy Hellickson in game four likely has something to do with how you feel about defense independent pitching statistics (DIPS) theory.

There are a few differences, of course. First off, Hellickson's problem is not with the home run. His 10.9% HR/FB, while a little bit high, is not debilitating the way Shields's 13.8% mark was. No, Hellickson's troubles this season have stemmed from what he does with men on base. An average strand rate is in the mid-70% range. In each of his previous season's Hellickson has been very good at stranding runners, with a rate over 80%, while this year he's only managed to prevent 66% of them from scoring.

Well clearly there's something wrong with his approach or with his mechanics from the stretch, you say. Maybe, but take a look at the numbers.

Bases Empty Men on Base
PAs 446 291
AVG .245 .311
OBP .300 .363
SLG .416 .502
K% 18.4% 18.2%
BB% 6.7% 6.9%
HR/FB 9.7% 13.2%
BABIP .274 .358

I would contend that Helly is not falling apart once a batter reaches first base. He's pitching at practically the same level, judging by strikeout and walk rate. But he's doing far worse in the two areas known to be most attributable to luck. Or let me rephrase that for some of you, because I really don't feel like arguing the particular point right now: He's doing far worse in the two areas known to be least predictive of themselves in the sample size we're using.

Would I prefer that Hellickson not groove a 91 mph fastball to David Ortiz with the bases loaded? Well, yeah. But based on the numbers, there's little reason to expect that he will.

A final note about giving Helly the start. If you believe that Chris Archer should be toeing the rubber instead, that's fine. They're both decent starting pitcher options who have failed to go deep into games lately. If Hellickson falters, even a little, I'm certain that Chris Archer, Matt Moore, and the rest of the Rays bullpen will be warmed up and ready to go. Now is not the time to pitch like a starter. Now is the time to empty the tank. It's only a question of who gets to do so first.

All statistics from FanGraphs.

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