Just a week after Opening Day, a young man will turn 24 years old. He is 6'1", 185 pounds and upon first glance looks to be younger and smaller. But when he steps foot on a pitching mound, Jeremy Hellickson is pure man.
The best pitching prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays' system is ready to burst on the scene in 2011. He will likely be the team's fifth starter in a loaded rotation that includes past Rays top prospects like David Price and Wade Davis.
In the Rays' quest to return to the postseason, Hellickson will play a potentially major role. Here is why Jeremy Hellickson will become a household name quicker than you think.
Unlike many pitching prospects who are eased into their respective roles, Hellickson will be thrust directly into the Rays pitching rotation in 2011. With the departure of Matt Garza to the Cubs, Hellickson is the best option to become the fifth starter.
That being said, he becomes an integral part of a rotation in baseball's toughest division. If he pitches well this season, he will be an instant star. The Rays have four solid starters ahead of Hellickson, but as far as potential, he may be the second most valuable pitcher on the Rays staff behind David Price.
There is not a lot of data on Hellickson, mainly because he has only appeared in 10 major league games and started only four. But when you examine the less-than-advanced statistics Hellickson has racked up since 2006, you can begin to understand how good he really is.
Try this on for size:
-His K/BB rate from 2006-2010 (including the majors) is 4.56, which, when stacked up against pitching greats, beats the likes of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Cole Hamels, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and even Greg Maddux.
-Opponents hit .217 against him, ahead of such names as Randy Johnson, Tim Lincecum and Tom Seaver.
I know these are only two stats, Hellickson has pitched almost exclusively in the minors and he has not pitched nearly as long as anyone else mentioned, but the fact that he has been putting up these numbers for five years is not insignificant. He is the real deal.
The Rays' trust in Hellickson would not be so high if not for his prior success in pro baseball. After being drafted by the Rays in 2005, all Hellickson has done is go a total of 49-16 with a 2.68 ERA (not including his brief stint in the majors last year).
He has simply dominated all levels of baseball, whether low A-ball, Triple-A or the majors. Given his 4-0 record and 3.47 ERA in the majors last year, there is no indication that major-league hitters will pose much more of a challenge for Hellickson than anyone else.
Don't feel too bad for Mark Teixeira over there. Hellickson will make you swing, and he will make you miss. In Hellickson's 10 appearances last year, what he did to hitters was astonishing. Though his numbers (4-0, 3.47 ERA in case you forgot) are not too overwhelming, the hitters he faced had some interesting trends.
For one, they swung more than average (48.3 percent to the average of 45.6 percent). They also swung more on pitches out of the strike zone.
But what's more interesting is his ability to make people swing and miss. Hellickson's 13 percent swing-and-miss percentage was four-and-a-half percentage points higher than average and would have led the majors had he kept it up all year. Hitters only made contact on 72.6 percent of his pitches as opposed to the league average of 80.7 percent. Amazing stuff for a rookie.
If you're not sure about what you're looking at on the left, let me explain. This is a chart of all 86 of Hellickson's pitches on his August 10th start at Detroit. In this game, he pitched seven innings of shutout ball, allowing three hits, striking out seven and walking none. In the game, he threw 61 strikes and 25 balls.
This chart shows the movement of each of his pitches from the view of a catcher. Pitches below the middle of the graph have topspin (i.e. a curveball). Pitches above the middle have backspin (i.e. fastball, slider). The horizontal location on the graph represents if a ball tails towards or away from a hitter.
For example, Hellickson's changeup, shown in yellow, tails in towards a right-handed hitter with a good deal of backspin. His curveball, shown in purple, not only drops but tails away from right-handed hitters. With this much movement on all of his pitches, Hellickson possesses a deadly arsenal.
When watching Hellickson's debut against the Minnesota Twins, I had heard rumors of his excellent command. Rays TV analysts even compared his command to Roy Oswalt or even Greg Maddux.
After his 10 games in the majors, Hellickson had only walked eight hitters. He was throwing strikes and painting the corners of the strike zone.
For a young pitcher, throwing being able to consistently hit the corners of the plate is an invaluable asset. Control, after all, usually only gets better with age. Hellickson is already an excellent control pitcher, and that control will only get better.
In the picture shown, Hellickson had just allowed a home run to Oakland's Jack Cust in his start on August 20th. It was Hellickson's roughest start of the year—6.1 innings, three runs on seven hits and seven strikeouts.
Where many young pitchers (including and especially former Ray Matt Garza) would become flustered after making a mistake pitch, Hellickson thrives.
What happened following Cust's home run? Kevin Kouzmanoff struck out. Rajai Davis struck out. Travis Buck flied out to left. Inning over. That kind of poise and resiliency, the ability to come back from a mistake, is going to be a huge asset for Hellickson this year and beyond.
When you look at Hellickson's incredibly impressive résumé, it is easy to forget that he is just a few weeks short of being 24 years old. He is a young kid, still very raw as far as his potential goes. But that isn't to say Hellickson won't be a finished product until he's 27.
He could follow the David Price path, following a strong late-season debut with a shaky rookie season followed by a Cy Young-worthy sophomore campaign. Or he could carve his own path, blossoming into the elite pitcher everyone in the Rays organization knows he can be.
Either way, Hellickson is far from being the pitcher he can be. When he finally does become that pitcher, he will be a household name.