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.)