Is Jeremy Hellickson's BABIP sustainable?

This week while reading one of Jayson Stark’s articles, a point about Tampa Bay Rays' starter, Jeremy Hellickson, that I had made last season was called into question. I agree with Stark, that coming into 2012 the Rays have the best rotation in baseball; however, the player I’ve doubted the most in their rotation was Hellickson, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year. I doubted him for one critical reason, his ridiculously low BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Typically pitchers are thought to be lucky if their BABIP is below .300 and unlucky if it’s above .300. Hellickson had the lowest BABIP in baseball last season (.223) by over 13 points. The point I made during last season about Hellickson was that, he was terribly lucky and overrated and that San Franciso Giants' starter Madison Bumgarner was terribly unlucky and underrated. Andrew Friedman’s (the Rays’ GM, who’s opinion I respect greatly) quote in the Stark article has made me doubt my original opinion about Hellickson. Friedman believes Hellickson’s BABIP is sustainable, and I beg to question is he right?

A BABIP below .300 usually yields a lower ERA than peripheral statistics or estimators, such as FIP or xFIP. Hellickson’s fielding independent xFIP, which eliminates BABIP entirely, was 4.72 last season. That number is the reason why I questioned everyone’s thought that Hellickson’s 2011 season, in which he had a 2.95 ERA was so great. However, when looking at the numbers, there’s reason to believe over the course of his career, Hellickson’s BABIP will always finish under 300. Hellickson’s minor league BABIP’s were typically less than .300 and below is a look at his Major league numbers (All projections are from the PECOTA system):

2010 K/9: 8.17

2011 K/9: 5.57

2012 K/9 (projected): 7.2

2010 BABIP: .267

2011 BABIP: .223

2012 BABIP (projected): .268

2010 ERA: 3.47

2011 ERA: 2.95

2012 ERA (projected): 3.36

2010 FIP: 3.88

2011 FIP: 4.44

2012 FIP (projected): 4.04

Based on Fangraphs’ defensive metrics, the Rays had the best defense in the American league last season. This fact may have led to Hellickson’s extremely low ERA and BABIP, but also may have changed the starter’s approach completely. I don’t think it would be bold to postulate that Hellickson may have tried to not strike batters out in 2011, but instead attempt to pitch to softer contact, to capitalize on the Rays’ defensive abilities.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects that Hellickson will continue to have a lower ERA than FIP, as well as, have a BABIP below .300. This projection system even lists Matt Cain as his top active comparable. Cain is known for the fact that he consistently has a lower ERA than his peripherals. Cain’s career BABIP is .265, which leads me to believe in Friedman’s point. Hellickson’s 2011 may have been slightly lucky, but a comparison with Cain, and a projection of a very good ERA (3.36) in 2012, goes a long way in proving that Hellickson’s Rookie of the Year campaign was not a fluke. Thus, I retract my original opinion about Hellickson, he’s not lucky; in fact he’s very good.

This post was written by a member of the DRaysBay community and does not necessarily express the views or opinions of DRaysBay staff.