Jeremy Hellickson has struggled thus far this season, going 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in three starts. He has never been a pitcher who racks up tons of strikeouts, but this season he's fanned just 5.89 batters per nine innings. No fantasy owner was counting on Hellickson to carry a staff this year, but he definitely looked like the kind of guy who could be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher on rosters. At this point, he hasn't been any better than a replacementlevel pitcher in mixed leagues.
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This comes as a bit of a surprise, because Hellickson enjoyed solid stats during the 2012 season despite a 10-11 record. He had a 3.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 6.31 strikeouts per nine innings, and he tossed 177 innings during the year. His 2011 was even better, with a 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 117 strikeouts in 189 innings. After those two strong years, Hellickson looked ready to potentially break out in his age-26 season.
However, there's one drawback to Hellickson's numbers. He's had plus-ERAs ever since he's been in the majors, but one advanced stat, Fielding Independent Pitching, suggests that his ERA has always outdone his actual performance. Hellickson's FIP was 4.44 in 2011 and 4.60 last year, both a full run-and-a-half higher than his ERA. As we dive into FIP, you'll understand why Hellickson's failing performance this season makes sense.
As we explained last week in our discussion on BABIP, whether or not a ball in play goes for a hit depends on a lot of factors. Just like a batter has no control over defensive performance or positioning once a ball is in play, neither does a pitcher. A ground-ball maven like Rick Porcello would likely experience better results if he pitched for a team with excellent infield defense like Cincinnati, as opposed to Detroit.
FIP aims to more accurately measure pitching performance by isolating only the results a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit batters and home runs. It creates a formula that appropriately weights each of those outcomes and spits out a number that, like ERA, measures earned runs allowed per nine innings. According to Fangraphs, league-average FIP is 4.00, so it's right about in line with ERA.
But what makes it a better indicator of a pitcher's performance is that it only includes what a pitcher can control on his own. It is also especially helpful in predicting future performance, since a pitcher's ability to strike out batters, or tendency to fall victim to walks and home runs, doesn't change a whole lot over time. What can swing wildly from one extreme to another is luck, which we can eliminate by calculating FIP. Given that Hellickson's ERA had greatly outperformed his FIP, fantasy owners should have been wary about him heading into the season.
Given the Rays' excellent defensive numbers and the emphasis they put on infield and outfield shifts, this might come as little surprise, but Hellickson isn't the only Tampa Bay pitcher whose ERA masks a slightly downgraded performance from what the surface numbers suggest. David Price had a 3.05 FIP last year, half a run higher than his 2.56 ERA. In 2011, James Shields had a 2.82 ERA in arguably the best year of his career, but his FIP that season was 3.42. Last year his FIP was up at 3.47, which was actually better than his ERA, which rose to 3.52. Matt Moore's 3.81 ERA was slightly better than his 3.93 FIP. As a team, the Rays have always put a premium on defense, and it helps their pitchers post superficial numbers that belie how well they're actually pitching.
Let's get back to the 2013 version of Hellickson. As we noted earlier, he's struggling and has a 4.91 ERA. But his FIP is even worse, coming in at 5.43. He has already surrendered four homers in 18 innings, and has five walks against just 12 strikeouts. The sample is incredibly small, but those are the numbers of a replacement-level starting pitcher. Until he shows signs of turning it around, owners should be careful about using him in tough matchups.