18 September 2017

Coming to the Defense of Jeremy Hellickson (Sort Of)

Jeremy Hellickson
(photo via Keith Allison)
The Orioles traded for Jeremy Hellickson on July 28 for Garrett Cleavenger, Hyun-soo Kim and international bonus money. Depending on how high you value that international bonus money (and Hyun-soo Kim for that matter), the addition of Hellickson did not cost the Orioles much in return. This is true especially when considering the Orioles wouldn’t have done anything with the international money anyway (the same can be said for Kim, with respect to his playing time). We’ve discussed before that while it did seem odd that the Orioles were adding pitching at a deadline where they should have been selling, it was a defensible move given that the Orioles needed innings from their starters to get through the 2017 season. Hellickson, whose durability is one of his better assets as a pitcher, fit that requirement at a minimal price.

No one expected the acquisition of Hellickson to realistically help the Orioles make the playoffs (despite such statements from the front office), but Hellickson’s performance has fallen well short of even minimal expectations. Since his arrival, he’s been…bad. He has a 7.29 ERA, a 6.57 FIP, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 27/16 (1.69) in 45.2 innings pitched. Amazingly, he’s done all this with a BABIP of .228. He’s even failed to provide the beleaguered Baltimore rotation with innings, as his 45.2 have come in 9 games started, which means he’s barely been giving more than 5 innings per start.

Where Hellickson has really gotten hurt is from the home run. He’s given up 12 since joining the Orioles, which is actually kind of impressive (his HR/9 is higher than both Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, no small feat). Hellickson’s tendency to give up home runs is not really a secret. Outside of an injury shortened 2014 with the Rays where it was 9.6%, his HR/FB ratio hasn’t been under 10% since 2011. It’s currently at 16.2% with the Orioles (15.0% for the 2017 season), the highest of his career. To make matters worse, Hellickson (who has never been a groundball pitcher) is allowing more balls to be hit in the air than ever. During his time with the Orioles, his groundball rate sits at 33%. The league AVERAGE for starting pitchers in 2017 is 44.0%. It would be easy to point at Hellickson’s profile as a fly ball pitcher not faring well in a hitter friendly ballpark like Camden Yards, however, he’s coming from 1.5 seasons in hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park, which has profiled as a much better place for home runs over the past two seasons.

Is it possible that Hellickson’s been a little unlucky? It’s certainly a difficult argument to make considering just how bad he’s been. The first thing that jumps out is his left on base percentage, which currently sits at 49.8% during his time with Baltimore. This is well below his career mark of 73.7% and the 2017 league average at 72.6%. Additionally, his contact profile during his time with the Orioles doesn’t look much different than previously, and actually looks slightly better than his career levels, with an increase in soft contact by almost 6.5%.

Of course, those two data points probably aren’t enough, and you can’t deny the absurd number of home runs that Hellickson has given up since August. While certain pitchers are definitely more homer prone than others, a HR/FB ratio from major league pitchers will generally regress towards the mean eventually. Not only that, but I would argue that Hellickson has suffered a little bit of bad luck on the timing of those home runs as well. Of the 12 home runs he’s given up as an Oriole, only 5 of them have come with the bases empty. Of the remaining seven, 4 have come with one man on and 3 home runs have come with 2 men on. Add it up and 23 of the 40 runs he’s given up have come via home runs (58%), which again, is kind of incredible. Compare that to his career home run numbers prior to joining the Orioles. Only about a third of the home runs he gave up (49 of 151) were with men on, while the percentage of runs he allowed via the home run was at 43%.

Furthermore, the location of pitches allowed for multi-run home runs looks to be pretty good overall. Below is a sequence of images that shows the pitch location for each of the 12 home runs he’s allowed as an Oriole. The first shows with the bases empty, the second with one man on base, and the third with 2 men on base.

As you can see, the pitches with the bases empty (all fastballs or cutters) are not located well. However, the pitch locations with men on base are mostly on the edge or off the plate. The highlighted pitch below (a hanging curve ball to Albert Pujols), is the only really terrible pitch near the edge of the zone. The other pitches that resulted in a home run with men on base look to be well located, and the result can likely be chalked up to bad luck, good hitting, or both. Of course, there is an argument one can probably make that the quality of Hellickson’s pitches (or lack thereof) allowed the hitters to get to some of those pitches, decreasing the amount of “luck” involved here.

Overall, the Orioles’ acquisition of Hellickson has not provided the quality or (maybe more importantly) the quantity of innings that the front office or fans had hoped for. However, it’s not something to get too worked up about. Baltimore did not give up much to get him, and despite a nice little run by the team following the trade deadline that kept them in contention of the second wild card spot, the Orioles have not been serious contenders since the middle of the summer. There is no denying that Jeremy Hellickson has not been good while wearing an Orioles uniform, but he’s also been a little unlucky. Sometimes both can happen when you’re dealing with a small sample size, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.


Pip said...

So I he's not a ground ball pitcher, why acquire him? Even if he is an innings eater, in such a small park, with such a horrible outfield, even if Hellickson were at his best, we would still be in trouble every game because he isn't the kind of pitcher this team needs.
So what was the logic in getting him?
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners got not only Mike Leake inexpensively( The Cardinals ate so much of his salary that the Orioles could have done the same transaction) but Andrew Albers, Who cost basically nothing. The Orioles could've gotten either or both pitchers and been far better off.
Why does Dan deliberately get guys who offer nothing?

Unknown said...

I'm sure the front office was aware of Hellickson's profile prior to acquiring him. I do really think they got him just to provide innings to finish out the season, and he hasn't done a great job at that. He doesn't offer much, but he also didn't cost anything, so what is the harm?

Now, if the reason they got him was to improve the starting rotation for a playoff push, then I feel like that was misguided but still doesn't cost anything.

Meanwhile, I thought the Leake deal was great for Seattle, and something the Orioles definitely could have (Leake cleared waivers) and should have been in on, especially considering their need for pitching the next couple of years

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Albers comment. The O's should have been able to pick him up for just Cleavenger. He was dynamite at AAA and has been good with the Angels. Hellickson was the "it" guy last year at the trade deadline and the Phillies held him. He is the same guy this year. Just because his performance has not been up to expectations doesn't mean it wasn't a good trade to make. However, the O's have acquired so many AAAA pitchers, I just don't understand not getting Albers.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Leake has full no-trade protection and apparently wanted to go somewhere on the west coast. I'm not sure if the Orioles had much of a chance with him.

Unknown said...

Ahhh, I was unaware of Leake's full no trade protection. Thanks Matt

Jon Shepherd said...

BORAS thinks that Leake is worth 3/39 in the FA market, which is what the Cardinals paid down to. Rayder Ascanio was a nothing prospect, so effectively the Mariners did with the Cardinals what the Orioles did with Miley and the Mariners. Post-trade Leake looks a ton safer than Miley was, but both were terrible disappointments. That is why the Cardinals paid 15 MM for a non-prospect. Just getting money off the books.