2017 Phillies Report Card: Jeremy Hellickson
In an ideal world for the Phillies, Jeremy Hellickson would have been on another team going into the 2017 season. However, the righty did not find the market he was looking for this offseason going off a solid 2016 campaign, and so returned to the Phillies on the qualifying offer tender of $17.2 million. For the Phillies, if Hellickson repeated his 2016 he would be worth the price, but if not, the young team still needed innings.
Innings is what they got from Jeremy Hellickson. 112.1 of them before they shipped him off to Baltimore at the deadline.
Things were off from the start for Hellickson. He had a 1.80 ERA through 5 April games, but he had also only managed to strike out 11 in 30 innings. Jeremy Hellickson has never been a strikeout pitcher, but coming into 2017 he had average 6.8 strikeouts per 9 for his career, including 4 straight years over 7.
The good news is that after April, Hellickson struck out more batters, the bad news is everything else. From May to July, Hellickson had a 5.79 ERA, he gave up 20 home runs in 15 games, and allowed a .909 OPS to opposing batters.
So what went wrong?
The most obvious answer is his changeup regressed. After posting a career high changeup swing and miss rate of 48.3% in 2016, Hellickson returned to something closer to his career average at 33.4%. Hellickson threw the pitch in roughly the same area (down and in to righties, and away from lefties). He threw it with roughly the same movement. What did change is that his arm angle continued to drop in what has been a trend since 2013.
He also threw his changeup a bit harder this season (81 instead of 80), which reduced the velocity difference from 10 to 9 mph off of his fastball. None of these point to the changeup causing a huge regression, rather it points to 2016 being the outlier and that Hellickson should have returned to being closer to his career form.
What is glaring is his curveball. At the start of 2016 season, a lot of people wrote pieces about how the Phillies were emphasizing high spin curveballs. The Phillies denied that it was anything intentional despite Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, and Jeremy Hellickson all featuring swing and miss curveballs. While known for his changeup, Hellickson had whiff/swing percentage on his curveball over over 28.7% in each of his first 7 seasons, but in 2017 that number was 16.2%.
In 2017 Hellickson threw his curve at the same velocity, with roughly the same spin. He once again lost some horizontal movement on the pitch, but more importantly, Hellickson lost an inch and a half of drop on his curveball. It wasn’t just the loss of movement that affected the outcome of the pitch as he was able to generate a large number of swings and misses throwing his curve down and away from righties and down and into lefties.
In 2017, hitters just didn’t swing at the pitch down and out of the zone.
With the sharp decline in strikeouts, Hellickson moved from a solid innings eater, to just an innings eater. Not in need of more backend innings eaters, the Phillies shipped him to Baltimore for LH relief prospect Garrett Cleavinger, veteran outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, and international bonus money. Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, and Ben Lively were able to do their best Hellickson impressions to close out the year.
Hellickson put up 1.1 bWAR in 112.1 innings before the trade. He made 20 starts and was just kind of bland. If Hellickson’s 2016 and 2017 seasons had been flipped, everything would have been much more palatable. Instead the Phillies paid him over $17M to be something they already had.