A week and a half ago, there were some modest rumors connecting the Chicago Cubs to Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. Specifically, Bruce Levine and Jon Heyman indicated that the Cubs had some interest in trying to pick up Hellickson, and it’s been widely expected that the Rays will deal at least one pitcher this offseason.

And then late last week, Daniel Rathman at BP reported, citing Joel Sherman, that the Cubs and Rays had actually had serious discussions about Hellickson, but the talks hit a wall.

Taking it all together, it’s fair to say that the Cubs and Rays engaged in serious discussions about a Jeremy Hellickson trade, but the Rays did not find the Cubs’ offers (or, more likely, suggestions of what they “would” offer) satisfactory. As we saw back when the Cubs and Rays were on-and-off discussing Matt Garza, teams who engage in this level of discussion frequently come back to the table as circumstances change, so, the fact that they’ve ceased discussions doesn’t mean Hellickson is not still a plausible target for the Cubs going forward.

But, should he be?

Hellickson, 25, is frequently noted as a “lucky” pitcher, rather than a good one, primarily because his ERA is consistently much better than his FIP (with a huge 2.95/4.44 split in 2011, and a 3.10/4.60 split last year – each was the largest split in baseball)*, his BABIP in the bigs has been well below .300, and his left-on-base percentage has been an enormous 80+%. On their face, all three factors suggest a pitcher who has been – for a very long stretch – super, super lucky.

Is it that simple? And, if so, is he due for a major regression? And, if so, should the Cubs have rightly balked at what were probably some very aggressive demands by the Rays?

Well, Glenn DuPaul at the Hardball Times dug into that very issue, trying to evaluate Hellickson’s unique combination of ERA success, paired with peripheral indicators that tell us he’s much, much worse than that ERA suggests.

In a piece that’s well worth a read (even setting aside the Hellickson case study, it’s a nice lesson in various advanced metrics, and the ways they can help explain performances that seem to defy logic … and the ways they can confound you even further), DuPaul looks at Hellickson’s ERA/FIP split, his uniquely low BABIP, his weak K/BB rate (1.97), his defense and ballpark (both of which help him greatly), and his still small sample size (barely two seasons of work).

Again, you should read the whole thing, but here’s an exemplary bit from DuPaul’s conclusion:

Baseball Prospectus publishes a statistic known as Fair Run Average (or FRA). FRA does a good job of describing for us how many runs a pitcher deserved to give up.

Hellickson’s FRA in 2011 was 4.93, well below average and well over his actual runs allowed per nine innings (3.05). Again last season, Hellickson’s FRA was bad, 4.54, versus the 3.46 that he actually allowed. These numbers would indicate that Hellickson hasn’t been nearly as good as his runs allowed per nine innings would indicate.

In fact, Baseball Prospectus uses FRA for its pitching Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) calculations.

Hellickson’s career WARP is 0.8, which would indicate that despite compiling more than 400 career innings, Hellickson has been a replacement-level pitcher (or even worse if you consider playing time). Using pFIP, I found an RA/9 projection of 4.83 for Hellickson next season, which jibes much better with his career FRA (4.67) than it does with his career RA/9 (3.27).

Is Hellickson a replacement-level pitcher who is due for serious regression, or is he a top-20 pitcher who can be had for pennies on the dollar compared to free agents like Zack Greinke?

I honestly don’t have an answer. But if a team decides it wants to get into deep trade talks with the Rays about Hellickson’s services, it should be aware of the facts that I’ve laid out.

DuPaul doesn’t want to say it, because the nature of the small sample size – and the elusiveness of true predictability in baseball stats (that’s what makes baseball awesome) – but the thrust of his piece pushes you in only one direction: don’t be fooled by Hellickson’s crazy good ERA. He’s due for a major regression that could see him become a below average pitcher next year and beyond.

… Or he could keep defying the odds, and sabermetricians will discover that there is something unique about Hellickson that makes him able to consistently out-produce what the numbers tell us he should be doing (including a currently-believed-to-be-magical ability to keep his BABIP well below .300).

Having gone through the exercise, you wonder if the Rays were trying to trade Hellickson as a Gold Glove winning, former Rookie of the Year with a 3.06 career ERA  – and the Cubs were trying to buy Hellickson as a pre-arbitration, 1.97 K/BB, 4.50 FIP lottery ticket. If that was the case, it’s pretty easy to see why the talks broke down.

*(As an aside, it’s worth noting that in every single one of Hellickson’s minor league seasons, save for his 2006 debut in Low-A ball, his ERA has been lower than his FIP. Obviously there’s a little something there, but the split between the two was never even close to as large as it was in the last two years.)

  • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

    I’d be curious what the in-person scouts say about him. The stats raise plenty of questions.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Ditto. It’s funny how little you hear about big leaguers from scouts. Is that info just guarded more jealously by the teams, or (more likely) is there less of a financial incentive to have online scout types writing up reports on big leaguers (since folks like us are willing to pay for scouting on minor leaguers/prospects)?

      • Webb

        I wonder what Maddux’s peripheral numbers were. As the ultimate command pitcher who pretty much got his strikeouts without trying, his BAIP must have been remarkably low as well. Perhaps Hellickson is a great example of what a pitcher with mediocre stuff can do by hitting his target consistently and using the hitter to put the pitch in play to his defensive alignment.

        • http://www.worldseriesdreaming.com dabynsky

          Career wise Maddux had a .286 BABIP which is low. He did have a few seasons bounce above .300, but he was able to maintain it below .300 more often than not. Maddux’s other wordly command made his peripherals pretty good though since he had well over a 3 K/BB ratio for his career. As Brett pointed out Hellickson isn’t even at 2.

        • terencemann



          Maddux’s K/BB ratios were ludicrous in his prime. He fit the very definition of an “ace” pitcher. His BABIP wasn’t that low, either, at .281 for his career and hovering in the mid-to high .200’s in his prime.

          • hansman1982

            Maddux fits the profile of an all-time ace. You could make an easy argument that you would place him on the All-Time starting rotation.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Maddux’s peripherals are there at the FanGraphs link I put in the comments.

          With Hellickson, as the years play out, I suspect what we’re going to find is that he was largely the benefactor of a great defense that was using great shifts behind him.

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

            Similar to what he would have behind him in Chicago (at least in terms of infield defense)?

            • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

              Indeed. Obviously very different ballpark, though.

              • hansman1982

                The odd thing is, according to FanGraphs, over the past 6 years Wrigley and Tampa have played very similar with Wrigley getting a slight edge towards the hitter.

                Is this where you were going? I can’t seem to remember what Tampa’s reputation is.

                • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

                  Definitely has a reputation as pitcher friendly.

                  • hansman1982

                    hmm, based on the numbers FanGraphs has it spit it out as neutral.

                    Went back an recalculated without triples (seems like it is skewing the numbers by quite a bit and I got 97.

  • bbmoney

    Hellickson probably has some value beause he’s young and cost controlled. But unless the asking price is very, very low (which I’m sure it’s not), I would be really nervous about trading for him. His peripherals were scary as a rookie and just as scary last year.

  • dustin

    I would rather have them talking to the Rays about Shields

  • AB

    Weren’t alot of the same things said about Matt Garza??

  • DocPeterWimsey

    It has been suggested that Hellickson’s very high pop up rate is part of what throws off his numbers: infield fly balls do not go for HR but they are FB.

    My big concern is how long he’ll keep a high pop up/all FB proportion. Some of it might be how he pitches, but that has to be dancing on a knife.

    • terencemann

      If part of his IFB rate is because he’s doing a good job studying video and doing his homework, then it’s possible he’s pitching to certain hitters in ways that make them more likely to hit IFBs. Fangraphs recently pointed out that some hitters are more vulnerable to infield flies if they’re pitched to in certain ways than others. This is, of course, pure speculation.

  • MichCubFan

    If i were our FO i would look into any possible move. If we like the deal then go for it, if we don’t then pull back.

    I guess what you are looking at is a young pitcher with a mid 4 FIP in the AL east who has found a way to out pitch that FIP on a pretty consistent basis.

    His minor league K/BB rates are very good, but they are quite a bit worse in the majors…is that from pitching in a tough division? Does he need a little help fully adjusting to the big leagues? Does he just need more time to develop?

    If they think he can improve to something a little closer to his minor league stats then i would go for it…if we can find a move that makes sense.

  • Mat B

    It sounds to me like he pitches to contact. How do these sabermetrics compare to a starter we’re all familiar with who pitched to contact, Greg Maddux? No I’m not saying he has Maddux’s skills. I just wonder if the numbers have some similarities.

    • http://www.worldseriesdreaming.com dabynsky

      They don’t have many similarities because despite pitching to contact Maddux also got more than his fair share of strikeouts and his K/BB ratio dwarfs Helickson’s due to his insanely low walk totals.

      • Mat B

        Fair enough. I am still curious about the sabermetric comparisons, though. I know very little about sabermetrics. Too old.

        • DocPeterWimsey

          Well, as a historical point, Maddux led to the derivation of the first Fielding Independent Pitching estimates of “true” ERA. Greg and Pedro both were having off years, but both said that there was nothing wrong: it was just that more balls were sneaking past fielders. A statistician named McCracken was ready to call BS: only to discover that both pitchers were giving up as few HR and Bb as in prior years and getting as many K’s.

          That meant that the only difference was that balls put into play were (gasp!) getting past fielders at a higher rate than other years.

          This in turn led to the realization that batting averages on non-HR batted balls was pretty much the same for all pitchers, and fluctuated probalistically around that expectation. (The realization that grounders limited runs allowed by limiting slugging despite giving up as many hits came a few years later.)

          And that completes our arc: because of an unlucky year by Greg, people are very dubious of the suggestion that Hellickson has a special way of letting batters hit balls that creates an unusual amount of fly ball outs.

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

            And the next frontier is figuring out whether our assumptions/beliefs about BABIP (for pitchers) is true. Maddux’s career numbers suggests a pitcher can have *some* control over BABIP, but we also need to figure out how much impact defense and ballpark have (which some folks have already studied, but the numbers are evolving).

            • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

              Maddux’s BABIP was pretty normal. Searching since the mound was lowered in…what was it, 1969? Maddux comes in about 200th among pitchers with 1000+ innings pitched.

              Interesting to have Catfish Hunter the lowestin that time frame at .239 and Andy Pettite and Zack Greinke at .308 (among the highest 20 out of 502 pitchers)

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Not a ton of similarities – despite the popular idea that Maddux was a pitch-to-contact type, he actually struck out quite a few in his day (frequently in the high 6/low 7 per 9 range). He also walked a third of the guys of Hellickson, so his FIP was generally in the same range as his ERA (10 points higher for his career). Maddux didn’t have the flukey high LOB%, and had a higher (but still better than average) BABIP.

      There might be something there, but we don’t have enough Hellickson data to say.


      • Mat B

        Thanks, Brett.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          No prob. It was an interesting point (and sophisticated, too, as you weren’t comparing the abilities of the two pitchers, so much as the hidden side effects of something they do similarly).

  • Brian Peters

    If the Cubs passed on him, who cares what kind of pitcher he is?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      “As we saw back when the Cubs and Rays were on-and-off discussing Matt Garza, teams who engage in this level of discussion frequently come back to the table as circumstances change, so, the fact that they’ve ceased discussions doesn’t mean Hellickson is not still a plausible target for the Cubs going forward.”

      • DocPeterWimsey

        I.e., it’s like dating in England instead of dating in the US….

        • wilbur

          You’ll need to explain that one …

  • Katie

    I have a soft spot in my heart for him. My best friend is very good friends with Jeremy’s dad and he’s certainly a local success story. I’d love for the Cubs to take a chance on him, if the price is right.

    • hansman1982

      Name dropper…

      • Katie

        Hey, I didn’t say *I* knew him. You’re just jealous.

        I will say that when he plays in MN or KC, he gets a block of tickets and there’s a group that takes a bus down there to cheer him on.

    • Stinky Pete

      Yes. Stats be damned, I’d love to have an Iowa boy on the Cubs!

  • J-Nasty

    It’s all about the asking price. Even if he is “lucky” he would be an upgrade to our rotation. I am assuming that the asking price is extremely high based on his age and success in the AL east.

    • jt

      31 2012 starts for Jeremy Hellickson
      14 starts of less than 6 IP
      6 starts of less than 5 IP
      The 6 starts of less than 5 IP totalled 47.3 IP and 31 ER’s
      The 14 starts, taken as a whole, of less than 6 IP totalled 63.2 IP and 35 ER’s
      Other than a 2.2 IP game where he was limited to 40 pitches his low pitch count for the other 13 games was 80 and the next lowest was 88.
      He struggled to get out of some bad innings with success. Perhaps luck. Perhaps he got his pitch. Perhaps he was able to pitch to his defense.
      At any rate, he was often taken out early, with good reason, and avoided a lot of damage many other pitchers would have suffered had he pitched more innings when not having the “good stuff”.

      • Ron

        Doc or Ace what do you think about this.

        How were his numbers “improved” by having a great bullpen to bail him out. If he consistently left the game with 2 runners or so on and the bullpen doesnt allow a run that could help explain the periferals. Maybe some of the cridit could go to the manager as to knowing when to pull him.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Having a great bullpen behind you absolutely helps your traditional numbers (ERA), because those inherited runners score less frequently.

    • terencemann

      I have no problem with Hellickson if the price is right but I think he’s more valuable to the Rays than nearly anybody else because of the way he pitches, their defense, and their stadium. They’re probably trying to sell as high as possible on him and I don’t think they have a great incentive to drop the price right now.

  • Brian Peters


    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett


      (That was just me kidding, by the way.)

      • Wester


        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          I love that you used that avatar. Everyone will continue to think you just can’t spell.

  • Drew

    I Love baseball, especially CUBS baseball, but I am not a stats guy. So, you really need a glossary page for all these acronyms: BABIP, FIP, FRA, WARP, pFIP, RA/9, etc. . .

    Love your Blog, thanks for all the info (that I can understand LOL)!

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm
    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Thanks, Drew. I keep meaning to do a saber/stats series with an explanation of some of the more frequently-used ones. I’ll keep it on my radar.

      In the interim, if you’re interested, head over to FanGraphs (www.fangraphs.com) and they’ve got a number of those definitions there to get you started.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        I’ve got some introduction to baseball stats articles on my to-do list as well. We’ll get to it, hopefully soon.

        • Internet Random

          If you wouldn’t mind, please take a stab at explaining string theory too.

          And, while you’re at it, why do we hurt the ones we love?

          • MightyBear

            String theory is elementary particles observed in particle accelerators which could be thought of as musical notes.


            According to the Mills brothers, we hurt the ones we love because we love them most of all.

        • MichiganGoat

          How about proper Tidrow stashe care

    • terencemann

      It really doesn’t take long to familiarize yourself with “advanced stats” (meaning stats you need a computer to calculate) and what the thresholds are for good/bad. It just involves going to a page like the one Norm posted and getting a feel for what they’re telling you.

      I don’t hold it against fans for not always knowing what different advanced stats mean because this is a hobby or form of entertainment.

      It drives me up the wall that people who are paid to talk/write about baseball can’t take 5 minutes to read up on advanced stats are about since they’re literally paid to do this.

  • Frank

    Short answer: yes
    Long answer: GOD yes.
    bollocks to fan graphs.
    Lest we forget the whole AL East to NL Central thing, as well as the Cubs not having a single pither capable of even masquerading as a top flight arm.

  • Spoda17

    Brett… (or anyone), has anyone actually done a sabermetrics comparison? Like a Nostradamus effect..? I have not seen Brian Kenny, or anyone else, really say, “…two years ago this [guy] had these numbers and [we] predicted he would fail, and sure enough he did…”

    I would like to see where a prediction was made based on the metrics and where that prediction was right. I know, it’s like predicting the weather, but I am just curious if someone has looked at a prediction success rate in this area.

    I like the numbers, and I totally believe they help make decisions, but I feel mechanics, and form, and approach to the game (ala Ian Stewart) are a much better predictor of future success than the “numbers…”

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If we had the time and inclination, the answer to your question is yes: we could find tons and tons and tons of examples of players having modest success a couple years ago, about whom the advanced stats said it was a fluke, and then who subsequently fell on his face.

      • jt

        How do you correlate that to the effect of aging on the player.
        Rich Hill had some success but at age 28 he kept missing high. That indicates he wasn’t able to get to his efficient release point. It may be that he was not the pitcher he was the year before because he didn’t train hard enough to compensate for the naturally occuring physical changes of the late 20’s.
        One example but it does indicate that the blame it on luck might used just a bit much.

        • http://www.worldseriesdreaming.com dabynsky

          I don’t think Rich Hill’s numbers really pointed to a lucky pitcher early in his career. He was a darling among many of the stat minded propsect gurus in the online communities I belonged to while he was in the minors due to his insane K rate. His problem was walks. He corrected it for a couple of seasons and had good seasons where he slightly outperformed his FIP, but when the wheels fell off his peripherals changed (his walk rate skyrocketed). Hill’s case is one where the eyes and numbers really did match up imo.

          • jt

            He corrected it for a couple of seasons but then forgot what he was doing?
            Was it mental or was it physical?
            There is cause and effect. To chalk everything to luck dismisses that.
            To paraphrase a P Chem book I once had: “If your text book spontaneously jumps from the table you would be better off considering a poltergeist rather than spontaneous sympathetic alignment of molecular motion. The universe just doesn’t hold that much luck.

            • http://www.worldseriesdreaming.com dabynsky

              I think you missed the point though. While Hill was doing those good things his stats didn’t paint the picture of a lucky picture. He had a fantastic K/BB rate. When he stopped doing that his stats reflected that. In Hellickson’s case the stats seem to point to a pitcher that is having unsustainable success with the same K, BB, HR rate (you can throw in a lot of other numbers in here as well). Hellickson might be doing something that stats we have right now can’t show or he might regress (in this case his K, BB, and HR rates remain the same while his ERA matches his FIP).

              • jt

                Hellickson had 31 starts and 171 ( I think ) IP. One of those starts was for 8+ IP and several were 7 or 7+ IP. That leaves a lot of sub 6 IP games. That is not a top of the rotation stat. Why is his ERA so low? He got out of Dodge before the real damage was done.
                He may have pitched around tough hitters and picked off the low hanging fruit. At any rate his pitch count was high so that indicates he was working for cheap outs but expensive in the sense that his outing would be short.
                That is not luck. That is systemic.

  • http://www.bleachernation.com frank hutch

    what is a realistic trade offer for hellickson thou? youre not gonna get him for anything less than 2 top ten prospects

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Depends on how the Rays value him. If they price like his major league ERA suggests, he’ll be high. If they price him according to his peripherals, he’ll be more affordable.

      It also depends on what the Rays are looking for in return. For example, if they want middle infielders that are three years away, the Cubs are the perfect trade partner.

  • ETS

    as an iowa native I approve of these talks.


    Jeremy is a fine pitcher . He is young. He pitches in the AL East and holds his own and has average 30 starts in the last two season. Is he an Ace? – the answer is No . He is a reliable number 3 starter and should improve in the next 2 to 3 years.

    The Cubs want to buy low on this kid – I doubt the Rays will sell low but this is one of the few reasons I remotely like the Cubs Front office . The Cubs Front office can detect young talent. and i would assume with confidence that in 2 to 4 years The Cubs Organization will have a handfuls of Jeremy Hellickson growing in its own backyard.

    Sometimes just having the goods is good enough. and in this instance Jeremy is a solid number 3 pitcher that can grow into a workhorse type.

  • Byron Browne

    So we pass on Hellickson, deal away Garza, and complain all year about how lousy the Cubs starting pitching is. Sounds like a perfect rebuild plan!

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

      Pass on Hellickson? What makes you think Hellickson is even a possibility?

      • Byron Browne

        Norm, did you happen to read the headline, if not the article?

        • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

          You mean the article with “had discussions” in the title?
          Or is there another article I missed that had “the Cubs passed on Hellickson” in the title?

          • Byron Browne

            The article postulates that the Cubs are in negotiations with the Rays. This indicates the cubs would like to possibly obtain Hellickson. The article says this is a bad idea, and thus the Cubs should “pass” on attempts to obtain Hellickson.

            • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

              Brett’s article says this is a bad idea?

              • Byron Browne

                Yes. To take issue with even having discussions about obtaining a certain player indicates de facto opposition to obtaining that player.

    • Byron Browne

      Besides, the point is that enventually we have to have someone pitching every fifth day. We can’t pass on less-than-perfect pitchers and hope that we can steal a top ace from some other team.

    • Dr. Percival Cox

      Well, yes, except for the part where we complain about how lousy the starting pitching is. The ones likely to complain are entirely against dealing Garza and think we should pass on Hellickson to sign Greinke and Sanchez.

      • Byron Browne

        Some of them seem to feel that Grienke is too much of a flake and Sanchez is a flash-in-the-pan. they might approve of a laHair trade for Verlander, but anything less is verboten…

        • wilbur

          Who does Verboten pitch for?

          • DarthHater

            If he told you, he’d have to kill you.

  • TommyK

    Here’s my problem with the new stats. They may be useful, but I have no clue what the mean. I understand what FIP is measuring, but I have no idea how to go about calculating it. So how do I participate meaningfully in a debate like this? You tell me someone punched some numbers into a computer and calculated the players value. I can either accept that blindly or reject it blindly. I understand what ERA and WHIP mean, so I can debate which stat is more meaningful. I can’t do that with FIP and FRA. I love that the Cubs are using these stats, but it makes talking baseball less fun for me.

    • DarthHater

      Along the same lines, as Tommy’s comment, could some of you knowledgeable folks share with us ignoramuses your reading list of essential sources for an introductory understanding of the “new” forms of analysis? I know about Moneyball and The Hidden Game of Baseball (just have to find time to finish reading them). Are there any other easily accessible sources you would recommend to provide Sabemetrics 101 For Dummies?

      Maybe if I become better educated, I can get Sweet Lou off my back… 😉

      • OlderStyle

        Baseball Between the Numbers

      • MichiganGoat

        Fangraphs has a plethora of great articles all for free, spending an afternoon searching through them helps plus all the formulas are there.

  • bob

    If the cost isn’t prohibitive, I say go for it. He’s already had success, and most pitchers seem to really hit their peak starting at around their age 27 season, so the improvement in the advanced numbers could still be coming. And as many others have pointed out, how many of our other options are really better?

  • Chris_RG

    Cubs need to stay away from Hellickson. His mechanics show signs of an Inverted W, which to me is an absolute deal-breaker for someone I’m trading a good chunk of my farm system for.

    (notice his elbow going above his pitching shoulder)

    For those who don’t know about the Inverted W/V/L, here’s a good read.


    It’s bad and the Cubs would be wise to shy away from long-term commitments from guys with bad mechanics. Scott Baker has an inverted V, for example, but he’s probably worth the risk on a short-term deal.

    http://www1.pictures.gi.zimbio.com/Minnesota+Twins+v+Los+Angeles+Angels+Anaheim+-G-1FhPjtmRl.jpg (again, look at the elbow)

  • Carne Harris

    Or he could keep defying the odds, and sabermetricians will discover that there is something unique about Hellickson that makes him able to consistently out-produce what the numbers tell us he should be doing

    Hopefully if that happens, sabermetricians will look for where their calculations are flawed. These little bumps can point to where the equations are off – like Mercury’s orbit not adhering to Newtonian physics before Einstein came around and explained it with general relativity.

  • http://www.survivingthalia.com Mike Taylor (no relation)

    I would use the Hellickson talks to score David Price. He’s gonna cost them too much money down the road… we can afford him, they cannot.

  • Did I Miss something

    Hellickson from the Rays is not the Answer………..Big Game Shields is who they need to go get and Lock up Him & Garza Long term

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I’d be very surprised if Shields is actually dealt.