Insider: Sophomore Slump For Hellickson?

Although his grapefruit league debut was rather quiet, there has been a considerable amount of chatter regarding Jeremy Hellickson’s 2012 season. Fresh off winning the 2011 Rookie of the Year Award, many are predicting a step back for Hellickson this year. It would be hard for any pitcher to post a sub-3.00 ERA in back-to-back seasons. Meanwhile, Hellickson’s lower-than-usual batting average on balls in play (BABIP) have some calling for harsh regression ahead.

It would not surprise anyone if Jeremy Hellickson gives up more hits in 2012 than he did in 2011. His manager, Joe Maddon, certainly would not be surprised. ” More than likely, Hellickson’s BABIP will be higher this season” Maddon said here. In 2011, Hellickson posted the lowest BABIP (.223) in the majors. The league average was .291.

With those numbers in mind, Maddon is almost certainly right. Those warning potential fantasy owners of a higher ERA for Hellickson in 2012 are probably right as well. While you cannot predict baseball, it almost a given that Hellickson will give up a few more hits this year than last; however, the right-hander has some things working in his favor that may help keep his BABIP at a manageable rate while fending off a full dose of negative regression.

First, Hellickson will continue pitch in front of one of the league’s best defenses. The Rays’ rotation – anchored by Hellickson – had the lowest team-BABIP (.265) last season thanks in large part to a fantastic defense. Part of that stellar defense is the unique positioning employed by the Rays based on the research of where there opponents hit the ball.  Maddon is on board with this theory saying  “if we move our defense and put it more properly in place, he (Hellickson) might have the same BABIP this year.” It is hard to believe defense alone will keep Hellickson’s BABIP 70 points below the league average, but it would be naïve to dismiss an above-average defense’s impact on a statistic predicated on balls in play.

Along with defense, Hellickson may have a unique trait that plays right into the hands of the defenders behind him. A contributing factor to his league-low BABIP of a year ago was an extreme amount of pop-ups generated by seemingly weaker contact. Although there is no public data such as Hit F/X to compare how weak or how hard contact is made, Hellickson’s infield flyball rate (IFFB%) suggests he induced softer contact than most.

In 2011, Hellickson posted an American League-leading 16.2% IFFB rate. Now, there is a debate if generating popups is a repeatable skill. And Hellickson’s 189-inning sample size is not enough to make absolute statements. That said, flyball pitchers tend to be among the leaders in IFFB rate and a select few flyballers have shown the unique ability to rack up pop-ups on a consistent basis.

While it is too early to label Hellickson as one of the chosen few, we can say confidently that he is a flyball pitcher. Among starters with at least 200 innings pitched since 2010, his 45% flyball rate is the eighth highest in the AL. Based on that, it is a possibility that his IFFB rate from a season ago was not just luck, but actually a sign of skill. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ Derek Carty did research on flyball pitchers and infield fly rates, concluding that Hellickson was among the leaders in what he called “the best infield fly ball “true talent” levels.”

Personally, I have been intrigued by Hellickson’s IFFB for quite some time. If Hellickson does indeed possess the skill, then he is a candidate to outperform the league’s BABIP on an annual basis. Rays’ Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman thinks that is the case as well. “I think the BABIP is way overstated in the case of Jeremy Hellickson,” Friedman said, “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.”

Even if Hellickson sees regression in the BABIP category, he can help keep runs off the board by improving on things he can control. Last season, Hellickson posted an unimpressive 1.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB). His 5.57 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) was well below the league average (7.13) while his walks per nine innings (BB/9) of 3.43 was slightly higher than the league (3.11). The strikeout rate in particular was disappointing; however, it was not for a lack of missed bats.

Despite the lackluster amount of strikeouts, Hellickson continued to produce whiffs in bunches. His swinging strike rate was near 10% while the league average was around 8.5%. In terms of contact made on pitches in the strike zone, Hellickson’s stuff continued to miss bats at a better-than-average rate. Aside from the swinging strikes, the 24-year-old could be the pitcher who most benefits from new catcher Jose Molina’s ability to frame pitches; especially on borderline pitches located lower in the zone.

BABIP can be a moody statistic. In 2010, James Shields posted a ridiculously high – and unlikely to be repeated – .341 BABIP. As part of his 2011 revival, his BABIP dropped to .258 – second in the rotation behind Hellickson. It is not out of the question for Hellickson to have such an extreme swing in 2012; however it is unlikely.

What is likely is that Hellickson will allow a few more hits over the course of this upcoming season compared to last. On the other hand, if he truly has the ability to produce infield flyballs at a high rate, then the BABIP-related regression may not be as steep as some suggest. Furthermore, if he can improve his strikeout rate through the continued ability to miss bats – maybe with some better sequencing – along with some quality additions in his arsenal (a revamped curveball and a new cutter), and perhaps some stolen strikes from his new battery mate, that could also help keep the talks of a sophomore slumps to spring whisper.