Jeremy Hellickson is Spotting His Change-Up

“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? … Is it being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?”

I know how that exchange ends, and you probably do too. Perhaps the Dude’s response to the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire, was, indeed, right. But maybe there’s something else — something I’ve concocted to make myself feel better. Perhaps what makes a man is the capacity to admit he is wrong.

I was wrong. About Jeremy Hellickson, specifically. In late April, I pegged Hellickson as someone who would regress in his strikeout rate (K%) based on his zone contact rate (Z-Contact%). Technically, I was right — Hellickson’s 75.7% zone contact rate as of April 24 has converged almost all the way back to his career rate of 84.6% (it currently sits at 83.1%).

It’s the change-up I was wrong about. Hellickson’s change-piece posted some filthy outcomes through the end of April. I claimed nothing about the pitch changed. I looked at velocity and movement. I didn’t look at location. Hellickson is spotting the ever-loving crap out of his change-up, and it has worked wonders for him.

Relatively speaking, of course. Hellickson’s 3.73 xFIP is barely half a stop better than the 4.15-ish xFIPs he posted in each of the 2013 through 2015 seasons. And, in terms of actual outcomes — like, the ones that Harold Reynolds cares about, not the ones Brian Kenny care about — Hellickson’s 4.41 ERA doesn’t scream improvement. He’s giving up too many home runs, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Anyway, Hellickson’s change-up has helped him succeed in sabermetric terms, and it’s all because of his command — something that hasn’t ever really been a calling card for him. His 2013-15 seasons:

hellickson 1

His 2016 season:

hellickson 2

Focus on the middle three cells in the lowest row. The last three years, Hellickson located his change-up low a little more than 24% of the time. The pitch induced whiffs roughly 37% of the time and generated a fairly weak 40% ground ball rate (GB%), per Brooks Baseball.

In 2016, Hellickson has located his change-up low a whopping 52% of the time. Look at that sea of blue. It’s beautiful! I don’t know how he compares to his contemporaries; I wanted to cite Dallas Keuchel, who lives down in the zone, but he paints (er, painted?) the corners very effectively. It’s not really the same. Doesn’t matter. Let’s just accept that it’s impressive, yeah?

I’m no doctor, but the improved command has played up the pitch’s efficacy. The change has induced a 58% whiff rate and 55% ground ball rate, both sizable jumps up from their previously pedestrian rates. (Brooks Baseball, again.) Accordingly, the strike rate on his change-up has increased from 31% to 41%, and his strikeout rate on plate appearances that ended with a change-up straight-up doubled, from 23.5% to 47.1%. That’ll do.

The pitch is not without its faults, though. It’s still getting hit around — when your opponents’ isolated power (ISO) exceeds their batting average, something’s screwy. Alas, the .139 batting average against is admirable, but six of those nine hits have gone for extra bases.

Still, this is better. Hellickson’s on the right track here. He’s also throwing a cutter now, and while it’s not great, it’s arguably better than his four-seam fastball. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. His four-seamer is something of a disaster, but it doesn’t give up home runs the way his cutter has so far. He has only thrown 100 cutters, though, so let’s give it some time for the noise to be less noisy. Maybe when the home runs cease, the increased whiff rate on the cutter will play up over the four-seamer. But there are some kinks to work out with the cutter as well.

Hellickson, at 29, is making strides as a pitcher. It would have been easy to settle down in Philadelphia and suck for a team expected to suck (and has sucked for the last month). But Hellickson is trying something new. He’s honing his craft. While he’ll never be the Rookie of the Year he once was — he literally can’t because he’s not rookie-eligible anymore, but, ugh, nevermind — he has flirted with relevance in standard mixed leagues all year and could actually make for legitimate trade deadline fodder in real baseball. That’s a victory in and of itself.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Previously featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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