Two and a half hours from now, MLB will announce the winners of the Rookie of the Year Awards for 2011. Many big time writers predict the AL winner will be Jeremy Hellickson. That projection is confusing this writer. Two of the major stat sites don't help either. Fangraphs pegs Hellickson's 2011 fWAR at 1.4. Baseball-reference.com offers their opinion via their rWAR which pegs Hellickson at 4.2. That's a pretty wide swing of valuation opinion, is it not? Baseball Prospectus is a little higher than Fangraphs but still much lower than B-R and give Hellickson 1.9 WARP. If these sites can't all agree, what are we supposed to make of it all?
Casually looking at Hellickson's 2011 season at face value, we can make the following easy judgments. His WHIP, Hits per nine innings and ERA were all good. His homers per nine, walks per nine, strikeouts per nine, strikeout to walk ratio and SIERA were all less than good. Digging a little deeper, his BABIP of .223 and his strand rate of 82 percent are unsustainable. The low BABIP, high strand rate, low strikeout rate take his actual ERA and translate into a SIERA of 4.63 or a differential of -1.68.
Hellickson's strikeout rate of 5.7 is confusing all by itself. The rate is so far lower than his 2010 rate and his rate all through the minors that this observer is left scratching his head. To make it more confusing, Hellickson was in the top 25 for all qualifying pitchers on swinging strikes percentage. His 9.7 percent rate in that statistic is not that far below the leaders either who came in just above 11 percent. So why did that not translate into more strikeouts? The one thing that seems to stand out for Hellickson on that leaderboard is that among pitchers in the top 25 in swinging strike percentage, only Hellickson and Gio Gonzalez had an O-Swing percentage under 30 percent. O-Swing percentage is the amount of pitches swung at when the pitcher throws the pitch out of the strike zone. Does that tell us anything?
It does separate Hellickson in this writer's mind from Wade Davis. Davis also lost his ability to strike out batters after his first year in the majors. The difference is that Wade Davis was in the bottom 25 of qualified starters in swinging strike percentage at 5.9. But it is a head-scratcher that both pitchers have seemingly lost their historic ability to strike batters out. Does this come from a different pitching strategy at the major league level (coaching staff, manager) than at the minor league level?
Also confusing to this writer is Hellickson homer rate. He gave up a homer per nine innings, which isn't all that great considering he pitches half his games in a pitcher's park (Tropicana). And yet, he limited batters overall to a slugging percentage against of .373. Part of that is from giving up so few hits overall. Hellickson is a fly ball pitcher. His fly ball percentage is much higher than his ground ball percentage. His home run to fly ball percentage is not bad at 8.8 percent, but with a greater rate of fly balls in general, that rate will lead to a high home run per nine innings rate.
So what's to make of Jeremy Hellickson? This writer simply does not agree that he should be the Rookie of the Year. But going forward, what can we expect? With his swinging strike percentage, his strikeouts should rebound (unlike Davis). His extremely low BABIP should result in some ERA regression. But if he continues with a high infield fly rate (16.2 percent), perhaps his BABIP isn't all luck (plus, he has a great defense behind him). Hellickson's success in the majors isn't guaranteed, but he does still appear to be a candidate for one of the top starters in baseball. With only one full season in the books, we'll have to look closely as his body of work builds to see which of his 2011 stats were flukish and which are long term trends going forward.