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The incredibly clutch Jeremy Hellickson

The one way Jeremy Hellickson is kind of like Cole Hamels completely unique.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds
Not quite Cole Hamels, but he’ll do.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

On Opening Day, Jeremy Hellickson took the mound against the Reds. He faced 22 batters on the team PECOTA projects to be the worst in baseball, and he managed to strike out… one of them. Suffice to say, Hellickson is not a great pitcher — a point this article will not attempt to debate.

But! Despite the lone K — and despite allowing six hits and a walk over five innings — Hellickson gave up just one run. How did he manage to avoid major damage? With a man on first and one out in the first inning, this happened:

GIF via

And with runners at first and second and one out in the third inning, this happened:

GIF via

So a Phillies starter got some double plays against a crappy team. Why is this news?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Adam Conley shared something with Cole Hamels — they both had higher ground ball rates with runners on base, which helped them work out of jams. I’d found the trait in Conley’s profile, and since I’d read about Hamels a few years earlier, he struck me as the most obvious analog. After all, it’s not like anyone else could have that characteristic, right?

Not long after I wrote the article, I decided to re-evaluate the data. I grabbed a sample of every pitcher who, from 2002 to 2016, had 300 innings from the windup and 300 innings from the stretch. This gave me a sample of 277 pitchers to work with. Did Hamels have the biggest increase in ground ball rate with runners on base?

As it turns out, no, he didn’t. Hamels got a ground ball 43.5 percent of the time with no one on, and 46.2 percent of the time with someone on. That 2.7 percentage point gap ranked him 24th. But enough about Hamels. This article is about Numero Uno:

Situational ground ball leaders

Rank Name BE GB% MoB GB% Diff
Rank Name BE GB% MoB GB% Diff
1 Jeremy Hellickson 36.0% 45.3% 9.3%
2 Andrew Cashner 46.9% 52.3% 5.4%
3 James Shields 42.4% 47.2% 4.8%
4 Jorge de la Rosa 44.9% 49.6% 4.7%
5 Tommy Hunter 40.5% 45.2% 4.7%
6 Roger Clemens 45.0% 49.7% 4.7%
7 Ramon Ortiz 38.7% 43.3% 4.6%
8 Scott Linebrink 34.5% 38.9% 4.4%
9 Adam Eaton 37.6% 42.0% 4.4%
10 Rich Harden 37.2% 41.2% 4.0%
Ranking among 277 pitchers with 300+ innings with both bases empty and men on base between 2002-16. Data via FanGraphs

The gap between first and second place on this leaderboard is 3.9 percentage points. The gap between second and 67th place is 3.8 percentage points. Here’s the data presented as a graph, for all you visual learners out there:

Did you know Microsoft Paint has a “crayon” setting?
Data via FanGraphs

There’s Hellickson, and then there’s the rest. In terms of basically everything else, Hellickson is a completely nondescript pitcher. In this one regard, though, he’s in his own league.

This spike has had two effects for Hellickson. Most of the home runs he gives up are solo shots: 89 of his 129 dingers allowed (69.0 percent, amazingly not a typo) have come with the bases empty. And when those ground balls find their way to defenders’ gloves — as they did against the Reds on Monday — Hellickson can get a double play. For his career, he’s done that in 12.5 percent of his opportunities*.

*Double-play opportunities, per Baseball-Reference, are when a runner is on first base with less than two outs.

Each of those marks is above-average. Last year, 59.4 percent of all home runs were without anyone on base, and pitchers induced a double play in 11.0 percent of their chances. Thus, despite not getting many grounders overall, Hellickson can wriggle his way out of trouble and strand a ton of runners.

How, exactly, has Hellickson pulled this off? Both Hamels and Conley relied more on their slower pitches when someone reached base. But Hellickson takes a different approach. He tweaks his fastball mix based on the situation:

Hellickson situational pitch usage

Situation FF CH CU FT SL FC
Situation FF CH CU FT SL FC
Bases empty 40.1% 27.8% 14.3% 14.2% 1.8% 1.7%
Runners on 33.0% 28.1% 16.2% 19.3% 1.9% 1.6%
Percentages exclude intentional balls, pitchouts, and “slice,” whatever that is. Data via Baseball Savant

The four-seamer has a lifetime ground ball rate of 33.0 percent; the two-seamer, 51.6 percent. Swapping the former out for the latter is a great way to get some more grounders. Know what else helps? Moving the location downward:

Images via Baseball Savant

Not only does Hellickson throw more two-seamers with runners on base, he concentrates them in the bottom of the zone. If you’re a pitcher who’s put some guys on and needs to turn two, you’d have a hard time finding a better strategy than that.

So, the lessons here are twofold:

  1. Cherry-picked anecdotal evidence is dumb and wrong.
  2. Jeremy Hellickson is cool and good.

Thanks to the ground ball jump, he’s run a 74.9 percent strand rate, which puts him in the top 20 percent of qualified starters. For the now-30-year-old righty — happy birthday, Jeremy! — that’s a pretty impressive distinction. He’s no Hamels, sure, but Hellickson and his clutch grounders can still give Philly fans something to look forward to in another rebuilding year.

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.