Jeremy Hellickson's 2011 BABIP has suddenly become all of the rage on the interwebs in recent weeks as people try to figure out how someone could post the lowest batting average on balls in play for a starting pitcher since both Tom Browning and Pascual Perez posted .221 BABIPs during the 1988 season. Just the fact that BABIP is becoming part of the mainstream discussion is encouraging, but the commentary on the stat in regards to Hellickson has been mostly scattered while avoiding an important part of the discussion.
Jayson Stark led off the discussion on February 26th when he quoted Andrew Friedman on Hellickson's BABIP:
I think the BABIP is way overstated in the case of Jeremy Hellickson," Friedman said, "because of how many infield popups he gets and the weak contact he induces. He's got an uncanny feel for how to miss the barrel [of the bat] and how to read hitters and move the ball around.
A few days later, we saw a well-informed fanpost in reaction to Stark's article which closed with this:
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.
On March 5th, Alan Dell of the Bradenton Herald covered the subject and spoke directly to Hellickson and Maddon on the topic.
I don’t worry about stuff like that. The goal is to go out there and let hitters put it in play and we have a great defense....I was able to do that last year and hopefully I can do the same thing. I want them to put it in play, but you’ve got to miss barrels and get weak contact. If I do what I do, things will work out.
A lot of that is baseball luck, and you’ve just got to go out there and play. More than likely, Hellickson’s BABIP will be higher this season. If might mean a couple of more knocks, but then if we move our defense and put it more properly in place, he might have the same BABIP this year. Things change on an annual basis. James Shields’ couldn’t have been higher than it was two years ago.
Today, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times re-visited the subject and has some similar interesting quotes (by the way, you MUST read the reader comments for the story). First, from Hellickson:
Yea, I just got lucky on the mound, A lot of lucky outs."I hear it (BABIP); it's funny. 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.
But it is Hellickson's pitching — specifically his style of pitching, combining a well-located fastball with a dynamic changeup — that is the key, Maddon said, often resulting in weak contact, specifically a high number of infield popups.
"He's a fly-ball pitcher, but he's one of those anomaly guys that gets the popup on the infield,' Maddon said. "If you look into those guys, they are pretty successful. The fastball-changeup combination probably induces the popup."
Hellickson closes the piece with this quote:
Wins are by far the most important stat," he said. "You have a terrible day out there but as long as you win, you’re fine.
That last quote inspired a post on Baseball Think Factory by the guy who started all of the BABIP madness, Voros McCracken:
I really never wanted to get it to this point, because it's not really fair to the pitchers as a public discussion. As a _private_ discussion in a front office it's absolutely fair and important, but Hellickson has a job to do and does it well enough to be one of the very best in the world at it. Does a standard measure of his job success give him more credit than his actual influence on those numbers might warrant? Sure, but you have to be good enough to put yourself in a position to benefit from that. Besides that's not a criticism of the pitcher anyway, it's a criticism of the "standard measure." It's simply the wrong way to approach the subject.
McCracken's comments as well as what Maddon said speak to what Tommy Rancel raised in his piece at ESPNFlorida last week in which he talked about two things that are overlooked by most national analysis: the Rays team defense and a pitcher's ability to control infield popups. Rancel first covered the infield fly rate back on July 6th when Hellickson's BABIP was .224, meaning that rate stayed consistent throughout the second half of the season despite the naysayers. In it, he cited work by Derek Carty of Baseball Prospectus on how repeatable of a skill inducing infield fly balls who concluded that Hellickson was one of the best true talent level pitchers at the skill last season, much like Jered Weaver. As both Rancel and Sandy Kazmir have pointed out often in their work and comments here, Hellickson and Weaver are very similar in their abilities to produce frequent swings and misses along with high amounts of infield flyballs and overall flyballs, both of which have a very low rate of becoming hits. Tom Browning excelled at this in his prime as he posted season BABIP totals of under .275 over six different seasons.
Rancel also references the team defense, something other approaches to Hellickson have failed to mention. We already knew the Rays employ more defensive positional shifts than any other team in baseball by a significant margin. That is part of the reason the Rays pitching staff has had the lowest team BABIP in baseball over the past four seasons at .276, eight points lower than the Dodgers or Mariners. The team BABIP over the past four seasons reflects the strategy:
2008: .277 (1st)
2009: .289 (7th)
2010: .278 (2nd)
2011: .265 (1st)
The same talent level of defense that was around in 2011 returns in 2012 with room for improvement factoring in what Jose Molina brings to the table behind the plate and a full season of Desmond Jennings in left field. James Shields is the lone outlier over the last four seasons as he is the only starting pitcher for the team to post a BABIP higher than .290 over the past four seasons and that outcome was bad process more than it was bad luck.
In closing, McCracken said it best in his comments at BBTF today:
Hellickson is not going to consistently post a .223 BABIP. No one ever does, not even extreme flyball guys. However there's also a pretty good chance his peripherals improve (his walks and strikeouts anyway) thereby canceling out some of the expected regression in his BABIP.