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Inside Information

Joe Maddon was rather perplexed with Jeremy Hellickson after the outing on Monday and made several observations about the young hurler to the media:

“It’s just been difficult or exasperating to try to get him to get back where he had been. And we’re turning over every stone trying to figure it out.”Maddon said he’s been “racking my brain” trying to help Hellickson, poring over reports only to find out “there’s nothing definitively different about him.”… “Normally those (two-strike changeups) aren’t fouled off,” Maddon said. “They’re swing-and-miss on those pitches. That speaks to the fact something is a little bit off with Helly.”

While there many not be anything definitively different with Hellickson, there are definitely some things going on that are affecting his performance.

In reviewing the data, we see some of the same non-issues as Maddon sees with Hellickson’s pitch outcomes. Hellickson has held hitters to a .194 batting average in two-strike counts this season, which is all of one point higher than what he did in 2012. If we drill down to the two-strike changeups that Maddon mentioned, batters are hitting .183 against two-strike changeups and that is 40 points higher than 2012. Yet, in terms of swings and misses, the percentages in 2012 and 2013 are both 27 percent.

The velocity reports from BrooksBaseball are also indifferent; outside of a slower curveball, Hellickson’s velocities have been rather consistent this season. If anything, he is throwing his changeup a bit harder in recent starts:

In yesterday’s transaction recap, R.J. Anderson mentioned Hellickson “showed no willingness to pitch inside against left-handers.” It is not something that Hellickson has resisted doing all season, but it is a trend that has shown up over his last few starts. The animated image below is a timeline of Hellickson’s pitches to left-handed batters in 2013 by location frequency:

Helly2013vLH

It is often good strategy for right-handed hitters to stay away from opposite handed hitters. Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals explained this to Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star during Spring Training:

Pitchers like to pitch on the outer half of the plate — away — because it’s hard to hit a pitch on the outer half of the plate out of the park. Stay on the outer half and, unless the guy has unusual opposite-field power, he’s likely to stay in the park.

That approach makes a lot of sense for Hellickson, particularly when pitching at home because it allows him to use Tropicana Field’s size to his advantage. Like anything, too much of someone can also cause harm.

The next image shows where Hellickson has located his fastball against left-handed batters in 2013:

Helly2013FBvsLH

The timeline shows that Hellickson has shied away from throwing his fastball inside in recent weeks. Greg Holland discussed these pitfalls:

But continually pitch on the outer half — away, away, away — and hitters start to “dive.” They stride toward the outer half of the plate and now, as far as the hitter is concerned, that pitch on the outside corner is right down the middle.

This behavior was on display from Holland’s teammates from the start of the game on Monday as Alex Gordon, Emilio Bonifacio, and Mike Moustakas were able to stay alive in at bats and wait for a pitch to their liking that they could drive and Hellickson eventually accommodated them.  From 2010 to 2012, Hellickson held opposing left-handed batters to a .250 batting average with a .759 OPS on pitches on the outer half. This season, left-handed batters have hit .284 on pitches on the outer half with a .796 OPS but those numbers have spiked to .321 and .855 during the second half of this season.

Hellickson is not broken mentally or physically. He had a rough patch earlier this season that he was able to recover from before recently falling off the wagon of success. Hitters are finding more success off him these days because they are not having to look too many places for his pitches. If Hellickson is to once again be effective with his pitches on the outside, perhaps he should work on pitching inside to batters again.