Fantasy Baseball: Was Jeremy Hellickson's 2016 Season a Mirage or Sustainable Progress?
Sort of secretly, the Philadelphia Phillies are building a nice little pitching staff, which can be easy to overlook after a 71-91 season.
The Phillies acquired Clay Buchholz, a potential buy-low candidate for fantasy purposes, earlier this offseason while young studs Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff headline the rotation.
They also have Jeremy Hellickson, who is a very intriguing pitcher coming off one of the better years of his career.
The Phillies quietly traded for Hellickson last offseason, and he had a pretty good 2016 campaign, ranking in the top 20 among qualified starters in WHIP (1.15) and striking out 176 hitters in 189 innings pitched, reliably taking 32 turns in the rotation.
But was this a one-year blip for Hellickson or a sign of things to come? Let's take a look.
A Seemingly Bad Fit
When Hellickson moved from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Phillies last winter, there was a bit of pause in the move for fantasy owners, and it was justified. Using ESPN's Park Factors from 2015, Citizens Bank Park was far more homer prone than Chase Field in Arizona was -- a hitter's park, as well -- although that trend leveled out in 2016.
Simply put, there's a lot of homers hit in Philly. Citizens Bank Park has ranked inside the top six for home runs allowed in each of the past five seasons, and led the league in homers 2013.
That's especially noteworthy for Hellickson, who traditionally gives up a ton of fly balls.
A high fly-ball rate is generally seen as a bad thing -- because more fly balls usually leads to more extra-base hits while ground balls rarely go for extra bases -- and putting an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Hellickson in a homer-happy park seems like a recipe for disaster.
Unsurprisingly, Hellickson gave up quite a few home runs in those seasons, which don't include 2016 because we'll get to it in a minute. Those homers led to an inflated ERA in 2013 (5.17), 2014 (4.52) and 2015 (4.62), but he wasn't pitching as poorly as those numbers suggest.
Not Too Shabby
ERA can be misleading for a variety of reasons, and there is a more advanced metric called SIERA that can better measure true pitching performance. SIERA gives more weight to things a pitcher can control and attempts to estimate what a pitcher's ERA should've been.
Here are Hellickson's year-by-year SIERA numbers for 2011 through 2015.
Outside of 2011 and 2012, Hellickson was pretty consistently a slightly below a league-average pitcher despite his elated fly-ball rates. His SIERA has typically been lower than his ERA, sometimes significantly lower.
And if he could get that fly-ball rate under control, he may be able to show signs of real improvement.
A Career Year
In 2016, Hellickson posted career-best marks in many categories and was a pretty valuable fantasy asset.
Part of the reason ERA can be misleading is that while it looks great in 2011 and 2012, disaster loomed on the horizon. Hellickson posted career-low strikeout rates and career-high walk rates, and disaster came in the form of a regression-filled three-year run from 2013 to 2015.
While his SIERA was actually its worst since 2012, his other peripherals -- namely his walk rate and strikeout rate -- were career-best marks. After three years of bad luck and pitching better than his ERA suggests, Hellickson got some good luck last year, with his ERA nearly a half-run lower than his SIERA.
In the meantime, he continued to trim his fly-ball rate, posting a mark fly-ball rate of 34.4%, the lowest of his career. Hellickson also limited hard contact well, especially compared to his previous four seasons.
All in all, he struck out more guys, gave up less walks and allowed fewer hard-hit balls -- you don't need me to tell you all those things are very good.
A Change in Arsenal
What caused all the success?
Well, one potential answer could be that it looks like Hellickson started using two pitches -- his cutter and sinker -- more frequently in 2016. Looking at some pitch data from Brooks Baseball, it appears as though he dusted off an old friend in his cutter, and his sinker usage jumped to an all-time high.
Hellickson previously used a cutter in 2012 and threw it about 7% of the time, but he seemed to shelve the pitch the next few years. In 2016, he decreased his four-seam fastball usage for more sinkers and cutters.
A cutter from a righty will run in on left-handed bats, giving Hellickson a new weapon to use against opposite-handed hitters. And sinkers, ostensibly, should lead to more ground balls, which could help explain his career-low fly-ball rate.
Given the hurt Hellickson has caused fantasy owners in previous seasons, especially back in 2013, it makes sense to be a bit leery to buy back in and believe 2016 was for real.
While the park certainly doesn't do him any favors if he reverts back to his extreme fly-ball ways, Hellickson seems to have taken a major step forward with Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure.
The change in repertoire and approach seems to have helped him make gains in strikeout rate, walk rate, hard-hit rate and fly-ball rate. Entering his age-30 season, there's no reason to suggest he won't be able to maintain the level of success he just saw. Similar to Buchholz, Hellickson will likely be a cheap late-round option at the end of drafts, and he could be a nice under-the-radar asset, just like he was a year ago.