In 2016, the Phillies found themselves in a sort of intermediate year in their rebuild. They had spent the previous couple seasons stocking the minor leagues with prospects acquired both through trades and high draft picks. With few veteran players of league-wide value left to trade, that work was largely set aside for 2016. However, those prospects were either not quite ready to debut at the major league level or already there but still enough away from their peaks to vault the rebuild to completion. 2016, then, was a year of waiting for the future to come into place beneath the surface.
Enter Jeremy Hellickson. Early in the offseason, the Phillies traded Sam McWilliams—a tall, but otherwise not-particularly-notable pitching prospect—to the Arizona Diamondbacks to acquire a 29-year old former Rookie of the Year who hadn’t had an ERA better than league average since he was 25. Due to his age and the one year left on his contract, he wasn’t apparently a part of what the Phillies were doing organizationally. He was neither a young player the team was looking to develop nor a player who figured to make a major impact on immediate wins.
In the early 20th century, Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, presented "the stranger" as a sociological category. The stranger’s relation to the group in which he finds himself can be best thought of as an individual who is in, but not of, the group. Hellickson, as evidenced by his 189 innings pitched and 32 starts for the Phillies, was certainly in the Phillies organization. However, it never felt that he was a true part of that group: From the moment he arrived every mention of him concerned his potential departure either at the trade deadline or at season’s end.
Hellickson will be back for the start of the 2017 season, and, assuming any semblance of health out of Spring Training, he’ll pitch more innings as a Phillie than Roy Oswalt did. Despite that, Simmel’s notion of The Stranger continues to apply to Hellickson, where it didn’t apply to Oswalt. Simmel describes the contributions of the stranger as distinct from those of the group. "...his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself." That couldn’t be more true of Hellickson’s position with the Phillies. His value lies almost entirely in the fact that he is not a part of the team’s future plans. All of his contributions to the team are in service of that inside group—Nola, Velasquez, Eickhoff, Thompson, Eflin, etc.—that has belonged, for practical purposes, from the beginning.
That Hellickson will return for 2017 is, in some ways, a disappointing development given that it means that the Phillies neither were able to trade him at the deadline nor receive draft pick compensation for a departure in free agency. But, it’s not all bad. The Phillies were comfortable with the possibility that Hellickson would return at the seemingly steep price of $17.2 million for one season because in his brief tenure with the team, he showed that he can be a viable mid-rotation starter when healthy.
His 3.71 ERA on the season was his best since 2012. There’s reason to believe that some of that is a reflection of a different pitcher and is, therefore, sustainable. First, as FanGraph’s Eno Sarris pointed out earlier this month, Hellickson added a cutter to his arsenal that helped boost his infield fly rate. Second, his strikeout and walk rates were both the best of his career for seasons in which he threw at least 40 innings. Third, his BABIP, while a tad low at .274 is both not low enough to be suspicious and potentially attributable to the increase in infield fly balls brought about by his cutter.
Hellickson’s 2016 season shouldn’t be considered anything less than a success. He remained mostly healthy and his starts never felt destined to put a strain on the bullpen before they started. The Phillies didn’t make, or even seriously contend for, the playoffs, so it’s tempting to say all that was for naught. That would be too simplistic, though. Hellickson’s reliability and ability to avoid late-2015 Aaron Harang levels of ineffectiveness made it easier for the team to not rush Jake Thompson when injuries struck or force someone like Ben Lively into service before he’s ready.