Last season, Jeremy Hellickson experienced a bit of a career renaissance. After running a 4.86 ERA from 2013-2015, Hellickson was able to record his lowest ERA since 2012. By the more advanced FIP statistic, 2016 was actually Hellickson’s best year since becoming a full time starter. He accomplished this by keeping his home runs under control, striking batters out more than ever, and walking batters less than ever (again, since becoming a full time starter. In 36.1 innings in 2010 he had better numbers, but only 4 of his 10 appearances were starts).
He had pitched well enough that many were surprised that he wasn’t moved at the trade deadline. When the Phillies extended Hellickson a qualifying offer and Hellickson accepted it, there were hopes that he would maintain the new level he had found last season and get flipped at the 2017 trade deadline for prospects. Through the end of April, it appeared that Hellickson wouldn’t just maintain that level of performance but exceed it – his ace-like 1.80 ERA was easily a career best. I wrote at the time that I was confused as to how he was doing it – he had the lowest walk rate in baseball, but his strikeout rate was alarmingly low. Was this type of success sustainable?
Fast forward to today, and the answer is clearly “No”. After that promising April, things quickly went downhill. The strikeout rate improved, if you want to count going from “dead last” to “fifth worst in baseball” as an improvement. His home run rate ballooned from 0.6 HR/9 (10th best) to 2.6 HR/9 (4th worst). His walk rate has similarly skyrocketed to 3.6 BB/9 (19th worst). Put it all together, and since April ended he’s arguably been the worst pitcher in the majors. Suddenly the somewhat-reasonable $17.2 million (yes, baseball players make a lot of money) seems not-at-all reasonable.
So how did this happen? What changed after April? Unfortunately for Jeremy, mostly things outside of his control. Players are swinging less than before (51.6% vs. 46.2%), but making more contact when they do swing (swinging strike rate down from 8.1% to 6.4%; z-Contact up from 84.1% to 90.7%). In addition to that, he’s also getting fewer called strikes on pitches outside the zone.
That being said, the biggest change is simply luck (or a lack thereof). In April, his expected batting average was .276, but he only allowed an average of .194. That difference of 0.082 was the highest in baseball (Read: Unsustainable). Since then, his BA and xBA have converged – 0.294 expected, 0.297 allowed. Intuitively, with a higher batting average comes more runs. I can’t say that Hellickson hasn’t “earned” his ERA, but I can hope that the home run and walk issues get under control before July 31. Otherwise the Phillies will be stuck with a back-end starter that has no future with the team beyond this season.
- Game 55: Win, 11-4. Winning is fun. A pitcher getting his first career win is even more so. Nick Pivetta didn’t have the best of games (5 IP, 3 ER, 4 K, 3 BB), but the offense picked up the slack and then some. The Phillies celebrated Pivetta as teams usually celebrate first time winners – by shoving him in a laundry cart.
- Game 56: Win, 3-1. Two players put the team on their back and carried the team to victory – Aaron Nola pitched 8 innings giving up only 1 run, and Howie Kendrick had 3 hits (1 HR) and a stolen base. With 4 wins through June 6, the team only needs two more this month to match May’s win total.
- Game 57: Loss, 1-14. Two important things happened in this game – the Phillies didn’t get shutout (thanks to an RBI single by Daniel Nava), and Andres Blanco pitched in the bottom of the 8th. By WPA, he was the best Phillies pitcher of the night (a slightly misleading stat, as the game was so far out of hand by the time that he pitched that the run he gave up couldn’t lower the Phillies chances of winning). Please read Blanco’s reaction to his 72 MPH fastball. It is a delight.
- Game 58: Loss, 1-3. Ben Lively again pitched 7 innings, but this time recorded his first major league strikeouts. The 3 strikeouts matched the number of runs the opposing team scored, which sadly proved to be too large of a lead for the offense to overcome. Odubel Herrera, who’s name anagrams to “Double”, hit a major league leading 22nd double (his 10th double in the past 6 games).
- Game 59: Loss, 2-3. Aaron Altherr hit two doubles and triple, and Jeremy Hellickson pitched a respectable 6 innings in a close loss to the Cardinals. Altherr led off the 9th inning with a double but the offense still came up short. Casey Fien, a 33 year old reliever acquired from the Mariners in exchange for cash, made his Phillies debut and pitched 2 scoreless innings. If you’re ever wondering about the state of the team, just remember that a veteran reliever you’ve never heard of made the highlights for this week.
- Game 60: Loss, 0-7. The Cardinals scored 7 runs on 6 hits, in large part because of the 6 walks given up by Phillies pitching, though Nick Pivetta balking in a run didn’t help things. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other pitcher – Carlos Martinez struck out 11 in a complete game shut out. It was the Phillies 4th shut-out loss of the year. 4 shut outs in 60 games feels like a lot, but in 2016 they were shut out 11 times, which they are on pace for.
- Game 61: Loss, 5-6. Odubel added to his already league-leading doubles total in the second inning to give the Phillies a short-lived 2-0 lead before Dexter Fowler’s 3-run homer in the 5th. That home run gave the Cardinals the lead for good as the Phillies left St. Louis without a win. It’s worth noting that after Odubel was benched for two games, he’s hit .459/.474/.919, the best OPS in baseball in that small sample.
Around the League Round-Up
- June 6th – At an NPB game between the Hawks and the Swallows in the bottom of the 10th inning with 2 outs and a runner on third, this happened. You only need to see the pitcher’s foot and part of his leg to know exactly how he’s feeling.
- Scooter Gennett, he of the career 38 HR in 502 games, became the 17th player ever to hit 4 home runs in a single game. Per Joe Sheehan, 38 home runs is the fewest career homers at the time a player has had a 4 home run game. To put this in perspective, Gennett hitting 4 homers in one game is about as likely as me figuring out a good way to end this paragraph.
- Brewers prospect Brett Phillips made his major league debut on Monday, which some would call a dream come true. Others would call playing HORSE with Macho Man every day during high school a dream. Macho Man never let Phillips win, so I hope there were some consolation Slim Jims.
- Being an average MLB player means you hold your own among the 750 best baseball players on the planet. This is usually hard to keep in perspective, because it’s the outliers that make things interesting. Right now, there isn’t a single more outlier-y player than Aaron Judge (a player whom I’ve written about before and will likely write about again). This past Saturday, he hit the HARDEST home run in the Statcast era at 121.1 MPH. The next hardest home run is 119.4 MPH (which, surprise, was also by Judge). The very next day, he hit the longest home run of the season – 495 feet. Judge has turned his at-bats into events. It will be a Judge-sized disappointment if we don’t get to see Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hitting moonshots in the home run derby this year. I’ll end this paragraph with a batting practice clip from last week.
- Jose Bautista is not known for his speed, but this steal might be my favorite highlight involving the prolific slugger.
To close, I’d like to share with you something my dad shared with me. Things might seem hopeless and down now – the Phillies, despite a 4-game win streak, are still comfortably in last place – but they haven’t quite sunk to the level of the 1961 Phillies. Frank Fitzpatrick at the Inquirer detailed the unique suffering of the Phillies that season. The ’61 Phillies lost 23 games in a row, the all-time worst record. The conclusion of the sad streak brought about the most Philadelphia thing I’ve ever heard.
The streak’s end precipitated one of the most unlikely scenes in Philadelphia sports history. On their airport return that Aug. 20, 2,000 fans and a marching band greeted the team.
Even when losing, Phillies fans can have fun.