The Cubs Had Discussions with the Rays about Jeremy Hellickson – But Should They Have?

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.)

Brett Taylor is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation, and can also be found as Bleacher Nation on Twitter and on Facebook.

86 responses to “The Cubs Had Discussions with the Rays about Jeremy Hellickson – But Should They Have?”

  1. Luke

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

  2. 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.

  3. dustin

    I would rather have them talking to the Rays about Shields

  4. AB

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

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Mat B

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

        1. 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.

  8. Brian Peters

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

  9. 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.

    1. hansman1982

      Name dropper…

      1. 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.

    2. Stinky Pete

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

  10. 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.

    1. 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”.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

  11. Brian Peters


  12. 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)!

    1. Norm
    2. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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…”

  15. frank hutch

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

    1. 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.

  16. 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.

  18. 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!

    1. Norm

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

      1. Byron Browne

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

        1. 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?

          1. 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.

            1. Norm

              Brett’s article says this is a bad idea?

              1. Byron Browne

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

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

      1. 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…

        1. wilbur

          Who does Verboten pitch for?

          1. DarthHater

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

  19. 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.

    1. 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… ;-)

      1. OlderStyle

        Baseball Between the Numbers

      2. MichiganGoat

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

  20. 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?

  21. 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. (again, look at the elbow)

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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

    1. Luke

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