Jeremy Hellickson was plucked from high school by the Tampa Bay Rays in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. During his six years in the minor leagues he struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings, while walking 2.1. He racked up a superb 2.71 ERA and allowed only 7.4 hits per nine innings.
In August of 2008 the Rays, historically patient developers of pitching prospects, finally granted the minor league hitters a reprieve from his destructive fastball, changeup, curveball combination. Hellickson’s instant success in the majors, he boasts a 3.14 ERA in 2+ seasons in the majors and the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award, rescued what had been a disaster draft for the Devil Rays organization.
The three players chosen ahead of Hellickson by the Devil Rays, Wade Townsend, Chris Mason and Bryan Morris have yet to reach the majors seven years later. Their nineteenth round selection, high school first baseman Ike Davis declined to sign and was selected by the Mets in the first round three years later. Even with his struggles this year, Davis would have been the second best player taken by the Rays in that draft, aside from Hellickson.
Yet the undoubted success of the semi-aptly named Hell-boy at the big league level has left many sabermetricians confused.
During his 36.1 inning stint in the majors in 2010, Hellickson struck out 8.17 and walked 1.98. His performance was exactly what the pitching-greedy Rays were hoping for, as he was able to maintain his minor league strikeout and walk rates while transitioning to the majors. The next two and a half years, however, have been something of a shock. Not in terms of results, for Hellickson’s ERA and innings pitched total have been excellent thus far. No, the shock has come from how exactly he is doing it.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a crucial sabermetric concept. It measures how often a batter reaches base when they do not hit a homerun, walk or strikeout. The major league average BABIP is .292 thus far this season, and rarely budges much below that. In his 312.1 career innings, Hellickson has produced a .237 BABIP. In 87 innings this year he has compiled a slightly higher but still impressive BABIP of .255. Combined with his propensity for stranding runners who reach base against him (82.1% career, 83% 2012, 72.4% league average), Hell-boy’s low BABIP has raised his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic, which measures only walks, strikeouts, and home runs, to a sabermetric disaster of 5.42 this season.
His performance in the statistical areas that pitchers have the most control over, has made him a below replacement player.
So what does Hellickson’s eternal battle with BABIP mean for his future success and his current worth? Starting with the latter question, even though he has not struck out many batters, and has allowed a large number of home runs, he has compiled an ERA .60 runs lower than the league average. Those runs saved will remain saved. However, his predictive statistics suggest that he will not save runs at a near-elite rate in the future, thus putting his future success in doubt. The question is complicated further by the absurd dichotomy between Hell-boy the minor leaguer, who was a saber-boy’s dream, and Hell-boy the big leaguer, a sabermetrician’s nightmare.
So, who is Jeremy Hellickson? Should he be defined by his ERA, his BABIP or his FIP? Or, despite his two seasons of experience, should the acronym drifting next to his name in the box score still be my all time favorite: SSS, small sample size.