Why You Should Buy, Not Sell, Jeremy Hellickson
by Eno Sarris //
We can get a little smart for our britches sometimes. We’ll take a pitcher, look at his peripherals and declare him over-rated. Then that pitcher goes and improves his peripherals and retains his ERA and WHIP and we look silly. This explains much of Trevor Cahill‘s last two years. Are we seeing it again this year in Tampa?
Take a look at Jeremy Hellickson‘s underlying statistics and he seems like a perfect sell-high. Despite a sweet ERA (3.17 ERA), he’s not striking out a ton of batters (6.1 K/9), is walking batters at about an average rate (3.25 BB/9, average is 3.14 BB/9), and is getting ground balls at a below-average rate (33.9% GB, 44% is average). To recap: that’s below average, average and below average. He’s managing the ERA mostly on the back of a lucky batting average on balls in play (.224 BABIP) and a lucky strand rate (79% left on base, 70% is league average).
Put it all together and you get a 4.27 FIP, or fielding independent pitching, a number on the ERA scale that strips out batted ball luck. An average FIP this year is 3.84. He’s been below average, which is a strange thing to say about a guy with a low-threes ERA and nine wins.
But here’s something even stranger to say: He could be just as good going forward, and maybe even fundamentally better. Well, that’s not really that strange, but given his rate stats, you might frown for a moment.
The reasoning behind the statement is simple. Like Trevor Cahill before him, Hellickson is a young pitcher. He has fewer than 150 innings pitched at the major league level. We can’t really assume that the strikeout and walk rates that we currently see are his true talent rates. In 2010, Cahill showed a 5.4 K/9 and the book was that he couldn’t sustain his results with that level of strikeouts. But Cahill had also had a 9.9 K/9 in the minor leagues. He just needed to figure it out on the major league level, and lo and behold, he now has a 6.65 K/9 and has bettered his FIP a quarter of a run.
Hellickson? He had a 9.8 K/9 in the minor leagues. He was a control artist, with a 2.1 BB/9 on the farm and no season where he walked more than three per nine. He never got a ton of ground balls, but he did get much closer to 40%. These numbers were accrued against inferior talent, but they are also relevant. We can’t just assume that Hellickson will continue to strike out six per nine and say he’s over-rated. Small sample sizes are the bane of the saber-friendly analyst, but in his last three starts, Hellickson has 18 strikeouts against three walks in 20 1/3 innings. That’s the sort of work he did in the minor leagues.
Particularly when we evaluate young pitchers, we cannot forget their minor league work. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and a young pitcher is an adjustment away from improving his underlying rates and ‘deserving’ his good fortune. Even in baseball’s toughest division, Hell Boy has great stuff, dominant control, and the ability to continue putting up an ERA in the low threes.
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as an FYI, take a look at Cahill’s in-play hits per 9 in the minors when he was striking out 10 and had a BABIP of well over .300, then look at his rookie season in-play hits per nine when he had a “good” BABIP, interetsing, huh? This often happens with BABIP, the actual amount of in-play hits remains the same, but the BABIP jumps up and down with the strikeout rate. BABIP is a poor, poor metric, as are the metrics based on it. FIP works a bit better but that’s mainly because it derives it’s numbers mainly from a constant plus the baserunners/home runs. When it fails, it’s largely because of the BABIP flaw.