Rays 2013 Season Preview: Number Two Pitcher

Baseball season is upon us, and the AL East is as competitive as ever. Any of the five teams could legitimately win 90 or more games, making it the most formidable division in Major League Baseball. I’ll be going position by position on a daily basis, analyzing how the Rays are situated heading into the season, and how they compare to the rest of the division at each spot. Today, lets take a look at the #2 pitcher on the Rays pitching staff.

With the departure of James Shields, a sense of dependability is gone from the rotation. Shields guaranteed 200+ innings of quality pitching, something that is in high demand throughout Major League Baseball. The big question is who will assume the mantle of #2 pitcher, behind David Price, this season for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson should begin the season with this task.

Hellickson is one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, which is notable considering he won the American League Rookie of the Year in 2011. He doesn’t dominate with overwhelming stuff, have incredible strikeout numbers, and has a walk rate that is a bit too high. Yet he has a career ERA of 3.06, which is quite impressive when you are pitching in the AL East. The saber community is constantly searching to discover whether or not Hellickson’s performance is a mirage or the real thing. An incredible career BABIP of .244 is what drives much of this concern considering it is typically associated with “luck”. If you are unfamilar with BABIP, here is a quick primer. It’s a simple concept that has proven itself out over the years, yet some pitchers are able to replicate low BABIP rates.

How has Hellickson done this? One of the keys to Hellickson’s success is an uncanny ability to suppress offense when runners are in scoring position. Watching him can be maddening because of the high pitch counts and his nibbling around the periphery of the strikezone. And while this can cause fans to pull out their hair, he is one of the few pitchers that can adapt the way he pitches in these situation to such success. Consider this, when no one is on base, a batter’s line is .225/.282/.414.. Yet when runners are in scoring position, he has held batters to a .210/.314/.299 line over his career.

What this tells us is that he nibbles even more with runners are in scoring position. This leads to more walks and a higher on base percentage. But Hellickson is willing to sacrifice more walks in these situations if he can generate worse contact, leading to a lower batting average, and a much lower slugging percentage. Less hits and extra base hits with runners in scoring position means fewer runs. Is this something he can continue to repeat?

Hellickson is armed with a fastball that sits in the 90-93mph range. It is a flat fastball that lacks movement, so he must avoid the middle of the plate with this pitch. Hellickson has one of the better changeups in baseball, and it is his equalizer. Having an elite changeup can cause a pitchers fastball to appear even faster to a hitter. Both pitches look very similar, thus a hitter doesn’t recognize which pitch is coming until it is closer to the plate. His curveball has improved, as he has two different types. One is a “get me over”, slower version that he attempts to get ahead in the count with. The other is a sharper curveball in which he will try to put away a hitter. As with other Rays pitchers, Hellickson started implementing a cutter in 2012. He appeared to gain more confidence with this new pitch as the season went on, and will be interesting to see how he uses it in 2013.

How do the Rays rank at this position compared to the rest of the American League East?

  1. Jeremy Hellickson
  2. Hideki Kuroda
  3. Josh Johnson
  4. Wei-Yin Chen
  5. Ryan Dempster

These rankings may raise some eyebrows, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Say what you will about ERA, but Jeremy Hellickson outperforms every player on this list based on allowing runs. Hideki Kuroda is vastly underrated, and comes in just behind Hellickson. The most difficult decision was ranking Johnson third on this list. He is an amazing pitcher, and being two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery, expect for him to have a big bounce back season. Having said that, he is moving to the toughest division in sports and needs to prove he is back at full strength. By the end of the season, he may be the best pitcher in the division, but for now, this is where he ranks. Chen had a nice year for the Orioles, and Ryan Dempster, welcome to the American League.

My expectation is that Jeremy Hellickson will continue to chug along, baffling his critics along the way. If he is wise about his cutter, it is one more trick he has in his back pocket. James Shields entered the Big League’s as a two pitch pitcher, and had to develop a curveball and a cutter to become the excellent pitcher he has become. Helly has developed his curveball quicker, and we may see the same with his cutter in 2013.

My prediction for Jeremy Hellickson in 2013: 14-8 3.05 ERA 180IP  130K 60BB

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