Allegedly, the Rays are getting closer to trading Jeremy Hellickson to a National League team. For additional, in depth thoughts on a Hellickson trade, read this take from Dock of the Rays. That means that now is as good a time as any to revisit one of the most common questions asked on this site over the past four years. Just exactly what kind of pitcher is Jeremy Hellickson?
The Top Prospect
Jeremy Hellickson tore up the minor leagues. Baseball America ranked him as the 18th best prospect in the minor leagues after the 2009 season, and as the 6th best prospect after the 2010 season. Here's a quote from the Baseball America report where he was ranked sixth:
Hellickson has proven at every step that he's as good as advertised. He made the most of his opportunities during his encore in Durham, which made him a better pitcher once he finally received the call to Tampa Bay. The Rays' rotation remains crowded, but Hellickson showed during the second half of 2010 that he's ready. Though he'll likely serve as a fourth or fifth starter as a rookie, Hellickson should become Tampa Bay's No. 2 or 3 starter in the not-too-distant future.
Expectations were high. Everyone admitted he didn't have a plus fastball -- it sat in the low 90s and flew a little straighter than the ideal -- but he was consistently rated as having the best changeup and the best command in the organization. His curve was well regarded also.
When Hellickson was given a cup of coffee in 2010, he did not disappoint. Here was Helly's line as a 23 year old:
Almost immediately, Jeremy Hellickson's career prospects went down hill, although it took a sabermetrically orthodox pessimist to say so in these parts.
What we see there is not a lot of strikeouts, and just a bit too many walks. At the same time, very few of the balls put in play against Hellickson turned into hits. We know that batting average on balls in play fluctuates a lot from year to year, and we know that the major league average is right around .300. Walking into a room of baseball fans and saying "batting average on balls in play is luck" is a good way to start a fight, but that's not really a point worth debating right here. The fact is that, whatever you want to call it, predicting a pitcher to sustain an unusual BABIP over the length of his career is foolish.
Home runs per fly balls is a similar statistic, where the differences in skill level between major league pitchers is relatively small. Hellickson posted great ERAs by achieving unusually low BABIPs in two seasons, and an unusually low HR/FB in one. That HR/FB turned around on him in 2012, though, and without strong peripherals (swinging strike rate-based arguments aside) it should have been apparent to everyone that regression was coming.
One cannot help but wonder what Andrew Friedman might have been able to trade Hellickson for in the winter of 2012-2013.
The Below-Average Pitcher
Now we get to the ugly part. While Hellickson's peripherals improved a bit (along with the league as it got more pitcher-friendly), that low BABIP left him, as Voros McCracken always said it would.
Combine that regression with some very poor sequencing (giving up more home runs with men on base), and Hellickson reversed his trend of limiting runs better than his strikeout and walk rate would suggest. For these two years, his peripherals were mediocre and his ERA was worse.
Of course, there's always an explanation, because baseball is a complex game. During the offseason, Helly had surgery on his throwing elbow to remove "loose bodies." We don't know how much the condition affected him in 2011, or how long it should take him to recover fully from the surgery. It may be that a healthy Hellickson really is that amazing exception who can post sub-4.00 ERAs with below average strikeout and walk rates. If you accept that Hellickson's performance has vacillated radically over his career, then you might believe in bounceback potential.
If you believe in defense independent pitching statistics, however, then Hellickson has been remarkably consistent.
The statistic FIP- is simply Fielding Independent Pitching that's been normalized for park and for year. It allows us to evaluate Hellickson independently of the ever-decreasing offensive environment. A score of 100 is average, and anything above that is below average.
By this measure, we see a very clear picture of a guy pitching at essentially the same level for his entire career. Hellickson has been the same amount below average in the statistics that best predict future pitching performance since his first full season in the majors.
If Matt Silverman is able to trade Helly for useful piece, good job by him. The strong minor league career and the FIP-beater reputation may help him do so. My hopes aren't all that high though, since by this point, Hellickson seems like a known quantity -- known to be able to provide fewer than 200 innings of below average pitching.