Jeremy Hellickson: The Anatomy of a $17.2 Million Contract

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.

For two years, Jeremy Hellickson was an above-average major league starting pitcher. That was 2011-12, the first two years of his career, during which he picked up a American League Rookie of the Year award and a Gold Glove. His ERA was 3.02.

For two years, Hellickson was a below-average major league starting pitcher. That was 2013-14, the following two years, and the end of his time in Tampa’s organization.

On November 14, 2014, he was traded to Arizona. Another below-average season followed, but he showed enough for the new Phillies brass to buy low on him one year to the day after the that trade sent him to the Diamondbacks. It was one of Matt Klentak’s first moves with the team, sending tall, physical right-handed pitching prospect Sam McWilliams for Hellickson’s services.

And, lo and behold, Hellickson was an above-average starter in 2016. Klentak took a flier and it worked. Through July 31, the final day before the trade deadline, only 25 pitchers threw more innings than Hellickson. His low 3.70 ERA and lower 5.4% BB% nearly earned him a plane ticket to Miami for the remainder of the 2016 season.

This offseason, Ken Rosenthal reported that the unsavory hijinks in the Marlins-Padres trade for Andrew Cashner nearly solidified a trade of Hellickson to Miami.

The short of it is this: A.J. Preller failed to disclose injury information about Colin Rea, whom he also sent to Miami in return for a package of Carter Capps, pitching prospect Luis Castillo, former Phillies farmhand Jarred Cosart, and Josh Naylor.

Rea got hurt in his first start and the Marlins could have reneged on the whole trade. They didn’t, instead sending Rea back to San Diego and recouping Castillo. If the whole trade was to be nixed (which MLB said they would allow), Rosenthal reported that Hellickson would have been sent to Miami for Naylor, straight up.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, the Phillies extended Hellickson a qualifying offer, which he accepted, making him the fourth player to ever do so and the highest paid 2016 free agent starting pitcher by average annual value ($17.2 million).

Rich Hill signed for $16 million per year for three years with the Dodgers, Bartolo Colon signed for one year, $12.5 million in Atlanta, and Edinson Volquez signed for $22 million over two seasons in Miami.

By Baseball Reference, Hellickson was a 1.4 win pitcher. In Fangraphs eyes he was more than twice as good, ranked 22nd among starting pitchers last season with a 3.2 fWAR and second (only behind Hill) among free agent starters this offseason.

By both accounts, he was a serviceable starter, especially in a young rotation for whom his main impact might not be his time spent on the mound, but his impact on his rotation-mates who carry the team’s future on their youthful shoulders.

So how did Hellickson spurn his three consecutive years of below average pitching to become the second-best trade deadline rental last season?

As Eno Sarris pointed out, Hellickson induced a high percentage of pop-ups last season without allowing more balls to leave the park, an impressive feat given the home run spike seen across baseball last season.

This looks likely due (at least in part) to the re-introduction of a cutter into his repertoire that allowed him to work in on left-handers. (Check out Eno Sarris’ good article on the offering, here.)

Hellickson throws the pitch–and the rest of his repertoire for that matter–with the intensity of a middle schooler responding to their parents asking “How was your day?” for the 156th day in a row.

It’s almost an afterthought, like his right leg might actually forget to follow through if he didn’t consciously make it. Coaches focused on increasing velocity now stress intent.

Hellickson is having none of that newfangled nonsense.

This is quite likely to be Hellickson’s last in Philadelphia. Can the team get maximum return and flip him at the deadline? One reason some were okay with keeping him for the remainder of last season is that a young rotation with guys getting shutdown needed some stability and consistency. This year, the team pulled in Clay Buchholz too, a veteran who can (maybe) eat those innings as well.

What would it take to trade him? Well, that depends. It’s unlikely to think Hellickson can pitch much better than he did last season. Given the bleak starting rotation talent available last season and the fact that he wasn’t able to be moved in those environs, it could be tough to envision another hot start that would make him more appetizing this season.

One drawback in finding suitable trade partners was that last season, while he could have provided a boost down the homestretch, it was unlikely he’d find a role as a postseason starter when rotations shrunk come September.

Maybe 2017 brings with it a contending team in a poor division or with an overpowering offense that needs some help to fill the number three spot in their rotation, be it due to injury or inconsistency. Maybe he pitches out the year for the Phillies as a mentor for the young guys.

But the trade deadline this season presumptively will hold more talent than last year’s, dropping Hellickson’s value. Among those who are slated to become free agents after this season are Alex Cobb, C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Chris Tillman, Marco Estrada, and Francisco Liriano.

There may not be much long-term information to learn in the first half for the Phillies in 2017. But by the All Star break, we should have a good feel for when call-ups may begin and the trade markets for Hellickson and the rest of the team’s one-year contract holders.

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1 comment

  1. Radu

    March 10, 2017 10:24 AM

    It may be a case of selective memory but I feel like players tend to outperform their career average in contract years (if there are articles out there analyzing this I’d be curious to learn if it’s true or not). If so, we may see a (at least) decent year from Hellickson once again.

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