Where Have Jeremy Hellickson’s Strikeouts Gone?
Jeremy Hellickson entered the 2017 season as the Phillies’ de facto ace. After last season, in which he posted the highest K-BB% and fWAR numbers of his career, expectations were high for the 28-year-old. Through two starts, the results are better than the Phillies could have hoped for. He’s tossed 10 innings and allowed only one run for a 0.90 ERA, and those two starts account for two of the Phillies three wins thus far. He hasn’t allowed a home run yet, and his walk rate is the lowest of his career. Opponents are hitting just .124 against him.
All of that sounds great, but it’s tainted by a disturbing lack of strikeouts. Hellickson has punched out just 3 hitters so far, out of the 39 hitters he’s faced, “good” for a 7.7 K%. That’s currently the lowest in the league among the 102 qualified pitchers. I have no idea what the cutoff for a qualified pitcher is nine games into the season, but among all those pitchers, Hellickson is striking out the fewest hitters.
So what is wrong with Hellickson? I guess you could say nothing because he’s still getting results. But from a sustainability side of things, it looks like something’s gotta give, maybe as soon as his his start tomorrow. Hitters have whiffed at just 5.8% of the pitches against Hellickson, compared with 10.8% last year. That’s fourth worst among qualified pitchers, just ahead of Bartolo Colon (6.30 ERA).
I looked at his swinging strike rates to see what was up. The data are not pretty:
Hellickson’s whiff rates (which is this case is whiffs/total pitches) are down across the board. Somehow he’s thrown 20 curveballs and hasn’t gotten a single whiff on any of them. Hellickson has allowed a 65.8% contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone in his career; this year its 92.3%. His velocity is in line with his career average. There’s no huge variation in his usage rates. His movement is fine. His zone% is a perfect match for his career averages. I’ve described the symptoms, but I still haven’t said what’s wrong with Hellickson.
Of course, it has to be location, and when you look at his heat maps, you can see the problem. First 2016:
You can see his pitches clustered down and in to righties. There’s almost no red above the middle of the strike zone. Now look at 2017:
Through his first two starts, Hellickson is all over the place. Practically the whole strike zone is some shade of red. The results are even more noticeable when you look at just curveballs and changeups:
On the left, everything is down. On the right, everything is in the heart of the plate or in the dirt. That’s a good recipe for very few whiffs.
Hellickson’s performance thus far is not sustainable, as evidenced by his xFIP (5.47) and SIERA (5.62). While he hasn’t necessarily “struggled” this year, hasn’t been himself through two starts. It appears the culprit is his command, so if you’re watching tomorrow, keep an eye on Hellickson’s pitch locations. If he can get his command back and keep his pitches down, he might be able to avoid the regression monster.