Luck and Jeremy Hellickson | The Process Report

Luck and Jeremy Hellickson

Baseball is a hard game. The higher the level, the tougher the competition; if minor-league players are big fish from small ponds, then major-league players are world-class anglers. To succeed, ballplayers need talent and hard work, of course; and just like everyone else, they need time and luck.

Jeremy Hellickson made pitching look easy in the minors. His mixture of stuff, feel, poise, and guts had scouts saying things, like, “I know I’m not allowed to use this guy as a comp, but every time I see Hellickson, he reminds me of Greg Maddux.”And, “I’d never compare any pitcher to Greg Maddux, but with Hellickson, I’m at least tempted to.”

Hellickson reached the majors in 2010. Won the 2011 Rookie of the Year award, and posted the second-best run averages in the Rays rotations in 2011 and (so far) 2012. The pitchers better than Hellickson, James Shields and David Price, both made the All-Star Game.

Despite those successes, Hellickson is no longer revered; not to Maddux levels. Talking about Hellickson is an open invitation to bringing up his batting average on balls in play, or the disconnect between his earned run average and component-based measures. You could say that Hellickson threatens to question what we know about pitching; however, that would be false. It takes more than one pitcher to shatter the DIPS theory; it takes more than one season for a pitcher to become an outlier. Everyone is willing to stick their toes into the Hellickson waters, but nobody wants to get wet.

During the offseason, Andrew Friedman said, “I think the BABIP is way overstated in the case of Jeremy Hellickson, 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.”

Friedman makes it sound as easy as Hellickson makes it look. But you know what happened? Hellickson’s infield fly rate has declined, his BABIP has increased, and so has his home run rate. Everything the iconoclasts predicted would happen, based on regression, has happened. Except for one thing—Hellickson’s run average continues to outperform the component-based measures.

Hellickson dismissed the role of luck in his success this spring as reporters pegged him with questions. Who can blame them—it makes for easy copy. What no one acknowledged is how it goes against a pitcher’s instinct to think about BABIP. Pitchers need self-confidence and self-certainty to succeed. Can people thrive in an environment where projectiles zip by your person without feeling some level of control? Major-league pitchers are playing Frogger. They think they control the joystick. They need to—otherwise, they might lose their edge.

The first home run Hellickson gave up this season came against Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Hellickson had struggled with his control all day, and he fell behind 3-1 to Saltalamacchia. Rather than go with another fastball, Hellickson made like Maddux and went softer, not harder. He agreed with Jose Molina on a changeup low and away. If Saltalamacchia swung, he would either whiff or beat it into the ground. If he walked, Hellickson would just get the next guy. The location was on point, but Saltalamacchia swung anyway. He connected and the ball flew into center. It kept going, going, going until it landed some over the center field wall.

The second home run Hellickson gave up this season came against Dustin Pedroia. Hellickson started Pedroia off with back-to-back changeups and worked into a 1-1 count. Now he would go inside and jam Pedroia. Catcher Jose Molina set up on the inside corner and Hellickson knew that, if he did miss, he needed to miss inside; Pedroia could hurt him otherwise. Hellickson threw the pitch and Molina’s glove moved towards Pedroia. The ball never arrived. Pedroia had ripped it over the left field wall.

Hellickson maintained his usual stolid facial expression. Almost as if to say, “They got lucky.”

In reviewing Hellickson’s 16 home runs allowed this season, six can be categorized as good pitches, bad results—like the Saltalamacchia and Pedroia home runs. The other cases involve a fastball up and in or a fastball down and in that hitters pulled, or another changeup low and away that Adrian Gonzalez golfed over the Green Monster. The rest are cases where Hellickson made a poor pitch or missed his spot.

Take the time he yielded a home run to Vernon Wells. It came on the seventh pitch and with a full count. Hellickson and Chris Gimenez decided to work a fastball down and away—Maddux used to say locating his fastball there made him look smarter than he was—a high-percentage pitch. Hellickson didn’t look so smart with what followed. He did throw a fastball, but he missed his spot entirely:

Hellickson has thrown more than 4,800 pitches in the majors by now; add in warm-up pitches, side sessions, spring training, and the postseason, and he might be pushing 6,000. Then think about all those pitches he made during his seasons in the minors, then about his pitches in high school, the pitches he made in his mind, and so on. Hellickson’s delivery and release point are committed to muscle memory, but he still has faulty runs. He can still over- or under-rotate, or yank his head too far to the left, or land awkwardly on his plant foot. He still makes mistakes and loses himself on the mound. He just has to re-find himself before the baserunners can re-find the plate.

The margin between success and failure is so thin. Look at the two images below. In both, Hellickson is throwing a changeup, ideally low and away. One will come near the target, the other will miss up and in. Which is which?

On the left you have the pitch that winds up down and away, on the right the pitch that comes up and in (Josh Reddick pulls it for a home run). The differences are so minute. How long did you spend trying to spot the differences between a relative success and a failure? Did you notice his head placement, his back tilt, or his arm extension? Or did you just guess and get lucky? Could you imagine trying to decipher the differences during a game? Now imagine how Hellickson feels.

If you watch a pitcher’s home runs allowed and nothing else, a funny thing happens. You begin to ask questions that you wouldn’t ask otherwise; about his stuff, about his velocity, about his mechanics, and about his intelligence. By honing in on the bad, you lose sight of the good. This works with numbers, too.

While everyone chattered about Hellickson’s BABIP, people ignored the popup rates, or the work done on the subject by Nate Silver. Everyone sees Hellickson’s groundball rate, one of the worst in the league, and thinks he needs to pitch down in the zone more often. But few pitchers in the league work down at a higher rate than Hellickson does.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow it’s suggested that too often we ignore outside factors when considering individual performance. Baseball is mostly free of outside factors, though the pitcher-batter matchup is crucial. If you believe Hellickson’s supporters, this is where he excels by outsmarting hitters. Sequencing is a great, unexplored land that we can’t access. Instead, we have to read quotes like these, by Josh Paul, and wonder just how much of the game we’re missing:

David Laurila: Can you give an example of how you’ve worked a specific hitter, and what you’ve communicated to your pitchers in wanting to do so?

Josh Paul: When I caught for the White Sox, I always had trouble with Edgar Martinez, as I’m sure a lot of people did. He was a hell of a hitter. He seemed to be looking for every pitch that I called, and he usually smoked it into the gap. One day I noticed something in the way he took a slider off the plate. He made an aggressive move with his stride toward it, but held his swing at the last moment. It dawned on me that he was looking for that slider. I called for a fastball on the next pitch, and he took it right down the middle without so much as flinching. He took the next one the same way. We got him to pop up the next fastball. He couldn’t take it with two strikes. From that point on I told the pitchers to throw him a ball on the first pitch. They thought I was crazy. They didn’t want to get behind in the count, especially to Edgar. But I persuaded them to sacrifice just that one pitch so we could see, by his stride, what he was looking for. Just like a pitcher can tip what pitch is coming by the way his body moves, so too can a hitter when he is sitting on a certain pitch. The next game I caught against the Mariners, Edgar was 0 for 5, and we continued to have more success with him after that. The reason this approach worked so well for Edgar is that he didn’t swing at a pitch he wasn’t looking for before two strikes. He took those two fastballs right down the middle because he was looking for the slider. His approach was geared for the off-speed pitch. He knew that a swing in that situation, at a fastball, even one that was over the heart of the plate, would not produce the result he was looking for. The fun part about catching is finding ways to get guys out, even if it means using their strengths against them.

DL: Can you give another example?

JP: We noticed that Cal Ripken tipped his approach as well. He was a hitter who used a lot of different stances in his career. Sometimes he would switch stances in the middle of an at-bat, and if you paid attention you could see what he was trying to do to you. Usually, if he was standing straight up he was trying to juice the ball–pull it for power. We would throw him soft stuff away when he stood like that. If he crouched down, he was trying to take you to right field, and he became vulnerable to fastballs inside. Of course, these weren’t automatic ways to get these guys out. Hell, they were Hall of Fame caliber players, but they were intelligent approaches that increased our chances of getting them out.

There’s another part of Thinking, Fast and Slow that suggests we create stories to support data. This is the trickiest part when analyzing Hellickson. Those scouts, who mentioned Maddux, did not know that Hellickson would outperform his FIP. They saw something, be it his sequencing, or just his physical similarities. They likely did think he would keep runs off the board—and he has.

In the future, Hellickson’s component-based measures will probably win out, as they are wont to do. But in the present, Hellickson is a welcomed sight. He’s making us think. He’s making us look deeper. He’s making baseball hard again. As it should be.



4 Comments

  1. jasoncollette wrote:

    That Josh Paul interview is money

  2. The discussion about FIP-busters seems so meaningless at this point to me. Over a long enough timeline his ERA and FIP should approach one another we just have no idea which will make the larger adjustment. Some analysts seem to get quite heated about this topic, but it’s possible, likely even, that a rule is not going to apply to everyone. Some players are going to be outside the scope of why something works well because that thing must be relatively simple so that it’s reach can be considered successful.

    Good on you to point out that there is more to pitching than can be quantified by a single number. His sequencing and ability to induce weak contact seem preternatural. He’s able to get a lot of that weak contact, it seems, because he’s unwilling, almost pig-headed, about giving into a batter. Behind in the count does not mean fastball and it does not even necessarily mean that he’s going to attack the zone. I enjoy watching Hellickson frustrate batters by always erring on the side of caution. If he’s going to miss the zone it’s going to be in the direction of a ball. My own frustration can build on the days that he doesn’t have good stuff and he seems to be going ball a lot more often than strike, but he’s a great example of trading solid contact for the occasional free runner.

    • R.J. Anderson wrote:

      I neglected to mention this, but it plays into your second paragraph. Hellickson’s overall numbers with men on base are superior to when he has nobody on. Yet his walk rate shoots up. Not just because of the intentional walks, either. In that sense, he mimics Tom Glavine, who used to be more willing to walk a batter than groove one into his wheelhouse. It’s another one of those things we don’t (can’t?) quantify.

  3. […] then there’s the on the field stuff. It’s hard to figure out how Hellickson will pitch moving forward, and that complicates matters. As does the inherent […]

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