Air Hellickson: Jeremy Hellickson & The Infield Fly

Jeremy Hellickson has lived in rarified air this season; quite literally. The American League Rookie of the Year contender has done most of his work above ground. Despite Sunday’s complete game in which he induced 17 groundball outs, Hellickson’s 33.7% groundball rate is the lowest among Tampa Bay Rays starters.

Going back to the 2000 season, only two pitchers in team history have thrown at least 150 innings in a season with a lower groundball rate: Scott Kazmir in 2008 (30.8%) and the late Geremi Gonzalez in 2003 (33.1%). Among qualified starters in the American League this season, Hellickson’s GB% is the third lowest behind Colby Lewis and Jered Weaver.

Looking at peripheral statistics, Hellickson has been fortunate this season. His batting average on balls in play is .230. That is the lowest BABIP in the majors and 60 points better than the league’s average (.291). It is also 30 points ahead of the next starter on his team (James Shields .265) despite playing in front of the same defense and in the same ballparks. As a result giving up fewer hits, he is tied for the league lead in percentage of runners left on base. Thus far, he has stranded 82% of his baserunners; almost 10% higher than the league average. Both the low BABIP and high strand rate have helped keep his ERA around 3.00 for most of the season.

Normally, such rates would suggest steep regression ahead. Hellickson may experience some setback here, but because of a rare skill it may not be drastic. Similar to Jered Weaver, who was mentioned above, Hellickson gets infield flies in bunches.

This season, Weaver leads the league with an infield fly rate (IFFB) of 16.5%. Hellickson is right behind him at 16.4%. In certain cases, flyball pitchers show the ability to induce infield flies on a consistent basis. Weaver – with a career 13.7% IFFB – is one of those pitchers. In his first 200 innings, Hellickson and his 14.8% appear to be on the same path.
Strikeouts are a pitcher’s best friend. They are outs generated without relying on the ability of his defenders. But right behind the strikeout, is the often overlooked infield fly.

Although anything can happen once the ball is put in play, no type of ball in converted in to an out more than the infield fly (~98% of the time). Considering the rate of swinging strikes he generates (around 11%), Hellickson should strike out batters at a higher rate than he is right now. Until that happens, the pop-ups will need to keep coming in bunches.