Think back to last season, and the names that crowded the Phillies roster under the position “SP.” Sure we had Cole Hamels and, later, Aaron Nola, Adam Morgan and Jerad Eickhoff. Yes, “consistent” and “durable” Aaron Harang was there, too.
In all the 63-99 2015 Phillies enlisted 14 starting pitchers. They didn’t, as a group, perform well, a typical result when you need 14 people to field five open spots during the season.
But the 2016 Phillies have so far enlisted just seven starting pitchers: Nola, Morgan, Eickhoff, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson. The latter two were brought to Philadelphia as likely stopgaps who could earn some value as the team rebuilds. Nobody expected Morton and Hellickson to stay the season; Morton unfortunately tore his hamstring, but Hellickson has been – like Harang previously – consistent and durable. Unlike Harang, however, Hellickson has been valuable, producing a 3.84 ERA while striking out 106 and walking 27. It’s his finest showing since his early days in Tampa Bay and has placed him on the top of trade rumors.
Listen to those rumors, and you’d think it’s likely that Hellickson will be somewhere else pretty soon. His last start – an eight-inning gem Wednesday against the Marlins – could very well be his actual last start with the Phillies. And if so, it’s time to show some appreciation for Hellickson, who has filled a solid role and helped the Phils both in present and future.
The book on Hellickson starts with be his phenomenal changeup. Using it nearly 25 percent of the time (third in all of baseball), Hellickson’s change averages almost exactly 10 mph fewer in velocity than his fastball, while it moves at an average of 5.8 inches vertically off release point. The combination of consistent velocity and plus movement has made his pitch the seventh most valuable changeup in baseball – pound for pound, arguably just Marco Estrada‘s change is better.
But the key to Hellickson’s solid season may be his curveball. It’s the 11th most valuable curve in baseball (though third on the team behind Nola’s and Eickhoff’s). Why? Because it drops off the table. Hellickson’s curve has a 9-inch drop rate, on average, nearly the best in baseball and right in the Clayton Kershaw range.
This sort of movement was happening last year, too. Hellickson in 2015 had an 8.2-inch drop on his curve (and a 5.7-inch drop on his changeup). But the difference may be in his fine tuning; this piece by Alex Chamberlain of Fangraphs shows Hellickson is locating the changeup far better than in years past. His control is much improved – when he went south with the Rays his BB/9 ratio was moving into the 3.0 range, never quite getting below 2.6. This year? 2.03. He’s efficient, deliberate and more concerned with getting contact than strikeouts. And because that approach has carried on through the season, and the stuff continues to be good, the strikeouts have remained.
If this is the end for Hellickson as a Phillie, he could fetch them a decent prospect (a team top-15 talent, possibly). He’s a free agent next year, so his value can only be so high. But it’s possible that regardless of what happens in the next week, Hellickson has earned a decent three- to four-year contract to be the No. 3 or 4 starter on any ballclub. Heck, he’d be a good depth candidate for the Phils rotation in 2017 and beyond.
Either way, he’s done a sterling job this season. He’s better than most anything the Phils trotted out there last year, making a winner out of Matt Klentak and Co.