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2017 Phillies Player Preview: Jeremy Hellickson Revitalized Himself With an Old Weapon

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How Many Changeups Can You Throw In A Row?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Hellickson will be the Phillies highest paid player for the 2017 season. On the surface it feels like the $17.2 million qualifying offer price tag is outrageous, especially after the Phillies acquired Hellickson for a marginal prospect just over a year ago. However, Hellickson finds himself lined up for another opening day start for the Phillies as the anchor for their young rotation.

At first, Hellickson’s 2016 season still looks like an outlier after 3 mediocre years between Tampa Bay and Arizona. However, there does not seem to be anything unsustainable about what Hellickson did this past season.

Hellickson.csv

Site ERA Estimator Win Value
Site ERA Estimator Win Value
Standard 3.71 ERA
Baseball Reference 4.10 RA9 3.0 bWAR
Fangraphs 3.98 FIP 3.2 fWAR
Baseball Prospectus 3.74 DRA 3.5 WARP

While an ERA estimation between 3.70 and 4.10 does not seem particularly strong on the surface, Hellickson lowered his ERA at the same time the league average ERA for a starting pitcher last year rose from 4.10 to 4.34, which was already up from 3.82 in 2014. This means Hellickson’s WAR among starting pitchers had him 27th for Fangraphs, 25th for Baseball Prospectus, and 45th for Baseball Reference. On pure talent he should not be the 1st or 2nd best starter on a team, but when you look at the reliability and innings he provided in 2016 he pitched like one.

We can argue whether Hellickson actually is the Phillies best starting pitcher. He certainly is not the youngest, or the most exciting, or the most talented. So how did he become the leader of the pitching staff and how does he maintain that in 2016?

It all comes down to a pitch he has always been known for, his changeup. Here is what Baseball America wrote back after the 2010 season when Hellickson was their #6 overall prospect and had yet to win his Rookie of the Year.

Hellickson throws four pitches for strikes and does a great job of getting ahead in the count with outstanding fastball command. He keeps his four-seam fastball down in the zone, sitting at 91-92 mph and touching 95. His best pitch is a low-80s changeup, which he has added depth to over the past two years, giving him a formidable weapon against lefthanders. He also throws a solid curveball with tight spin for strikes early in the count. Hellickson added two-seam and cut fastballs to his repertoire in 2010, which helped his four-seamer play up. In the past, scouts worried about the lack of movement on his fourseamer, but those worries have been alleviated by the life on his new fastballs. He throws all of his pitches from the same arm angle, which creates good deception.

It is funny how much that report still holds true, but something changed about Hellickson’s changeup in 2016. Per Brooksbaseball, he has consistently averaged 80-81 on it, and that didn’t change. Over the years he has added a tiny bit of run and sink to it, but it is differences of fractions of inches from his 2015 version. He also even threw it at the second lowest rate of his career. But something big did happen.

Hellickson’s changeup whiffs per swing
BrooksBaseball.net

If we go to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards we see that Hellickson’s whiff/swing on his changeup in 2016 (48.3%) was second among starting pitchers to only the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta (49.3%). Hellickson also threw 5 times as many changeups as Arrieta. In the end Hellickson threw the 4th most changeups (754) among major league starting pitchers in 2016 (behind Marco Estrada, David Price, and Kyle Hendricks). Now all of this old news as Corinne Landrey wrote about this back in May for Crashburn Alley where she found that a large part of Hellickson’s success came from lowering his location on his changeup.

What has come out since Corinne wrote that piece is Baseball Prospectus’s pitch tunneling stats. What is more fascinating than the tunneling is it came with pitch pairs. So we can now see for the 2016 season how many time for instance a pitcher threw back to back changeups. What we find is that Hellickson, Kyle Hendricks, and Hector Santiago stand alone at the top of leaderboard, and not by a small margin (it is 31 pitch pairs from Hendricks to Hellickson, 16 more to Santiago, and then 40 from there to Felix Hernandez). If Hellickson threw you a changeup there was an over 40% chance that the next pitch was going to be another changeup. We saw in 2016 that Hellickson used this to both handed hitters to slowly expand the strike zone for swinging strikes.

Hellickson’s changeup is so critical because it is his only impact pitch. His curveball misses bats at around a 30% range which was 57th among starters who threw at least 100 curveballs (152 qualified). However, Hellickson’s 4 seam fastball is among the worst in baseball and was 14th worst out of 228 qualified starters last season.

This brings us all back to 2017 Jeremy Hellickson. He is never going to be an elite pitcher despite how good his changeup is, but if he can just be solid 2016 showed he can be a valuable member of the Phillies. He will likely get the ball for opening day in Cincinnati again, and maybe this year the Padres won’t screw the Phillies out of a deadline deal to send him out of town for prospects.