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The Proof Is In The Peripherals: Jeremy Hellickson

Welcome to the inaugural edition of "The Proof Is In The Peripherals," where we take a weekly look at the advanced metrics to determine which players are playing over their heads or...uh, under their feet (there really needs to be a saying for that) and how it affects their fantasy value.

Since we're only a week-plus into the 2013 season, virtually any stat I cite can be explained away under the aegis of small sample size.  So, before we get into the proper routine of this column, this week we'll focus on a player who has become a poster boy for advanced metric confusion, Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.

Fantasy pundits have treated Hellickson like a pinless hand grenade throughout most of his first two full seasons in the majors.  To the critics, any poor outing is the harbinger of Hellickson "finally" coming back to earth and pitch in a manner befitting his advanced metrics.  And brother, those metrics aren't too pretty....

2011: 4.44 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, 4.78 SIERA, 35% ground ball rate, 1.63 K/BB, 5.6 K/9

2012: 4.60 FIP, 4.44 xFIP, 4.44 SIERA, 41.8% ground ball rate, 2.10 K/BB rate, 6.3 K/9

These look more like the numbers of a back-of-the-rotation innings eater than they do a #2 starter on an AL East contender and yet here's Hellickson, firmly holding down a key spot in the Tampa Bay rotation.  Beyond the peripherals, of course, Hellickson looks like one of the best young pitchers in the game on paper --- he was the AL's Rookie of the Year in 2011, he has thrown 366 IP over the last two seasons and his real-world ERA is a mere 3.02.

This huge disconnect can be somewhat explained by two stats.  Since the start of the 2010 season, Hellickson leads all Major League pitchers in BABIP (.244) and left-on-base percentage (81.8%).*  You could argue that Hellickson benefits by playing for a Rays team that traditionally has strong defense (every Tampa pitcher with more than five IP in 2012 posted a sub-.300 BABIP), you could argue that he is Major League Baseball's answer to Longshot, or perhaps you could argue that Hellickson's ability to escape danger is a talent in itself.  Maybe Hellickson is this generation's Catfish Hunter, a pitcher who overcame blah peripherals and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

* = Hellickson is actually tied with Chris Sale in LOB%; since Hellickson has thrown 112 2/3 more innings, I consider him the leader.

I'm not by any means saying that Hellickson is destined for Cooperstown.  I'm just throwing Hunter's game out there as an example of a pitcher who just seemed to have a knack for producing despite all evidence to the contrary.  It's for this reason why I'm more optimistic than most about Hellickson's fantasy prospects.  If you're a Hellickson owner, you probably got him very late; he had an average draft position of 226 according to Mock Draft Central, making him a late 18th-early 19th round pick in most drafts.  At that spot, you're taking your fourth or fifth starter and not expecting a world-beating performance.  If you get a guy who eats up innings and posts a 3.02 ERA, you're golden. 

Hellickson's reputation as a peripheral stat-fueled disaster waiting to happen has actually made him a nice bargain, fantasy-wise, as his draft value has dropped to the point where anything he does produce is gravy.  And don't forget, this is still the same pitcher who had six dominant minor league seasons (2.71 ERA, 4.63 K/BB, 9.8 K/9 in 580 1/3 IP), was ranked as the sixth-best prospect in the sport by Baseball America heading into the 2011 season and just celebrated his 26th birthday two days ago.  Put it this way -- if Hellickson had underwent Tommy John surgery halfway through the 2011 season and was healthy going into this season, you'd have him as a prime sleeper candidate.  It's crazy to think that this situation would've done more for Hellickson's fantasy stock than his actual two seasons of quality pitching, but there you have it.

Now, it's worth noting that Hellickson has thus far struggled in his two 2013 starts, posting a 6.35 ERA in 11 1/3 innings.  Could it be that the bloom is finally off the rose?  Or, more accurately, we could say it's just been two starts (one of which was at Rangers Ballpark) so nobody should be jumping to conclusions just yet.  One lucky season can be a fluke but two "lucky" seasons makes one wonder if there's something more going on with a player.  Hellickson has been a walking affront to statistical analysis over two full seasons and by this point, I'm more than willing to roll the dice on him as a back-end starter in a fantasy rotation.

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