Sunday, November 16, 2014

Jeremy Hellickson and thoughts on defense

I have been looking at all the angles on the Jeremy Hellickson trade that brought two prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays from the Arizona Diamondbacks. And all that contemplation led to some thoughts about the recent history of both teams and what might have contributed from their falls from grace over the past few seasons. A lot of my thoughts ended up settling on defense.
The thought for years was that Jeremy Hellickson was not nearly as good as his results. In 2011 his ERA was 2.95 but his FIP was 4.44. Similarly, in 2012, Hellickson's ERA was 3.10 but his FIP was 4.60. He also had a high strand rate of 80% or better in both seasons.
It all seemed to catch up with Hellickson in 2013 and his ERA ballooned to overtake his FIP and that lack of success continued into his injury-shortened 2014. Those of us who felt that Hellickson was overrated clucked like proud chickens and said, "See!?" Perhaps our thinking is too simplistic.
The reason this resonates with me was watching the post season this past year. The Orioles and, more pointedly, the Royals seemed to make hay with flawed teams because their fielders seemed to catch everything in sight, especially in big spots. Every time you tuned in, some Royal was diving and making a play. More than anything else besides perhaps the bullpen, defense seemed to define the Royals.
If you look closely at the Orioles, the most drastic change from 2011, when they were terrible, to 2012, 2013 and 2014 was their pitchers' team BABIP or batting average for balls in play. In 2011, the Orioles' BABIP was .302. The next year, that figure went down to .285 and the team won 93 games. In 2014, that figure went down to .280 and they won 96 games.
While BABIP is not a magic bullet to point at for the sole reason a team succeeds, it does point to better defense and team positioning.
The Royals lost 90 games in 2012. Their pitchers' BABIP was .311! The team has won 86 games or better both of the last two seasons and that BABIP is down to the .291 range for both seasons. This corresponds to a defense that ranked first among all teams in team defense in 2014. In 2012, the Royals' team defense finished 18th among 30 teams in team defense. That has to make a difference.
Let's look at the Rays during Hellickson's career. In 2011, the Rays finished second among the thirty teams in defense. The Rays were sixth in 2012. They fell to ninth in 2013 and were only fourteenth in 2014. Just to give you an idea of the drop, according to, the Rays' defense was worth 59.8 runs in 2011. It was worth 4.5 runs (total!) in 2014. That is a huge drop. Hellickson's BABIP is only .269 for his career, but has been over .300 the last two seasons.
Just for kicks and giggles, I looked at David Price's BABIP statistics over the years with the Rays and 2014 marked the third year in a row that his BABIP had gone up, so there does seem to be some sort of relationship.
So what is going to happen as Hellickson goes to the Diamondbacks? The Diamondbacks have had a similar and maybe more dramatic fall in team defense. In 2011 the Diamondbacks were the best defense in baseball. They were strong at shortstop, the outfield could fly and they were also strong behind the plate and at third base.  They won 94 games and their pitchers' BABIP was .290.
In 2012 Stephen Drew got hurt, someone thought it was a good idea to break up the terrific outfield defense and put Jason Kubel out there and the defense fell to 13th and the team won thirteen less games. The BABIP for its pitchers went up over .300.
The 2013 Diamondbacks won the same number of games as the 2012 version, but this time the defense bounced back to second place. The outfield minus Kubel was again strong and the up the middle infield was strong as well.
2014 was a fielding disaster for the Diamondbacks. Mark Trumbo proved that the team hadn't learned from the Kubel education, Gerardo Parra was moved from left to right. It just didn't work and the team was awful. The team went from a pitching BABIP of .296 in 2013 to .316 in 2014. That is a full twenty point swing!
The bad news is this is what Jeremy Hellickson is getting himself into. However, there is hope. The entire front office and the manager on the field have all been cleaned out and perhaps the focus will again be on defense and preventing runs. Heck, it couldn't get much worse, so it has to get better under Tony La Russa's house.
The Diamondbacks play in Arizona where the hot and dry air means that the baseball flies. Defense has to be a key to how well the team can compete in those conditions. It's not quite  as bad as playing in Coors Field, but it's a tough environment. Hellickson is more of a fly ball pitcher. Outfield defense will be very important to him.
If the Diamondbacks improve defensively, Jeremy Hellickson, if healthy, will thrive in his new environment. He will get to pitch quite a few times in LA, San Diego and San Francisco, which should help even out the Chase Field disadvantage. He will not have to deal with the DH regularly and lineups aren't as deep. IF the Diamondbacks can support him defensively, he can be a nice addition. That is one heck of an IF though.