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The Escape Artist

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Yankees pitcher David Robertson has earned the nickname Houdini for his ability to get out of sticky situations, many of his own creation. Robertson is indeed good at what he does, but no American League starting pitcher has been better than Jeremy Hellickson over the past two seasons when pitching with runners in scoring position.

Take that, luck dragons
Take that, luck dragons
J. Meric

Most conversations about Jeremy Hellickson quickly move 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 sesaon, 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.

Since 2008, there have been 24 times when a starting pitcher has posted a LOB% of at least 80 percent. James Shields did in in his magical 2011 season and David Price as well as R.A. Dickey did it in 2012 on their way to the Cy Young Awards. Yet, Hellickson is 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):

Pitcher Batters Faced wOBA
Jeremy Hellickson 320 .257
Doug Fister 336 .270
Justin Verlander 373 .271
Dan Haren 381 .277
Max Scherzer 339 .279
Ivan Nova 376 .283
Ricky Romero 452 .292
CC Sabathia 417 .294
Josh Beckett 310 .295
Justin Masterson 465 .298

How exactly has he managed to avoid the luck dragons like this? Here is how Hellickson stacks up against his counterparts in the rotation over the past two seasons:

Pitcher Batters AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Jeremy Hellickson 320 .189 .305 .280 .257
Jeff Niemann 162 .215 .281 .387 .286
David Price 372 .245 .330 .361 .299
James Shields 355 .242 .316 .419 .318
Alex Cobb 199 .256 .345 .353 .304
Wade Davis 254 .245 .353 .473 .352
Matt Moore 184 .252 .374 .463 .354

Over the past few weeks, we heard a lot about players performing in clutch situations as the Miguel Cabrera camp built the narrative for giving him the AL MVP over Mike Trout. "He steps up in the clutch," or, "He does what his team needs him to do when they need him to do it," are explanations we hear when people fawn over how a player is seemingly better in one situation over another. In Hellickson's case, he does do something different when pitching with runners in scoring position.

In 2012, there were 88 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in major league baseball. I compared their overall batting averages on balls in play to their BABIPs with runners in scoring position. Zack Greinke was the worst in the league as his BABIP rose 67 points in those situations, something that has been a three-year trend for him. The Rays-related note in that list is that David Price, James Shields, and Matt Moore all showed up in the bottom 15 of that list. Price had a 16 point difference in his BABIP, Moore a 34 point difference, while Shields had a 41 point difference. Only Hellickson was neutral as his difference was a scant four points. The chart below shows how their batted batted ball outcomes compare overall versus RISP situations:

Niemann 45% 47% 36% 34% 15% 15%
Price 52% 49% 31% 32% 11% 9%
Cobb 57% 57% 24% 23% 6% 9%
Shields 58% 49% 25% 32% 9% 9%
Hellickson 47% 38% 39% 41% 17% 14%
Moore 33% 37% 46% 43% 8% 15%
Davis 42% 36% 43% 43% 8% 14%

Both Hellickson and Shields show the same improvement in groundball rates when pitching with runners in scoring position despite the different wOBA results. Only Hellickson and Price have been able to induce the weakest non-bunt contact, the infield fly, in this situation. Using a partial set of 2012 pitch data from BrooksBaseball that spanned from April to August, there was little difference in the types of pitches Hellickson threw while runners were in scoring position. The only noticeable change was he used his cut fastball 13 percent of the time, a pitch he threw just seven percent of the time during the season. Here is where he located each pitch type while pitching in RISP situations compared to non-RISP situations (UPDATED; credit to @SandyKazmir):





His recipe appears to be sinkers and cutters to the corners, curves and change-ups down while getting strikes with his fastball while also throwing them on the outer edges while trying to stay away from the sweet spot of the bat.

There are three basic outcomes for a pitcher: the good (strikeout), the bad (walk), and the ugly (home run). Here is how the staff stacks up against one another in those situations:

Pitcher HR/9_RISP HR/9_All K%_RISP K%_All BB%_RISP BB%_All
Niemann 0.5 1.0 20.4% 19.1% 6.2% 6.7%
Price 0.4 0.8 22.6% 24.1% 10.2% 7.0%
Cobb 0.4 0.7 18.1% 18.0% 10.6% 7.7%
Shields 1.2 1.0 24.2% 23.4% 7.9% 6.4%
Hellickson 0.6 1.1 17.8% 15.9% 13.8% 8.7%
Moore 1.1 0.9 22.3% 23.9% 14.7% 10.5%
Davis 1.1 1.1 17.3% 13.2% 11.8% 7.9%

Hellickson has had his struggles with home runs, but that is not something that has happened with runners in scoring position. In fact, he has permitted just five home runs over the past two seasons in that split. Only Price, who has allowed just four (all in 2011) while facing 372 batters with runners in scoring position has a better ratio on the team. Hellickson's walk rate is noticably higher with runners in scoring position, which speaks to a willingness to not give into one hitter and attack the next one if need be.

We are over 400 innings into Jeremy Hellickson's career, and he owns a career .244 BABIP and has stranded 82.2% of his baserunners. Traditionally, both numbers scream regression to the means of .300ish and 72%, but Hellickson is doing things differently and they are working. The luck dragons will not stay away forever, but Hiccup Hellickson Haddock is doing what he can to tame them.