For the uninitiated, BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play. It is exactly as the name implies: A metric that tells you the rate at which batted balls resulted in hits (not including home runs). This intentionally ignores the two biggest events a pitcher has a lot of control over, walks and strikeouts. Studies have shown that unlike walks and strikeouts, pitchers have very little control over the conversion of batted balls into outs. Instead, that is reliant on the pitcher's defense, park factors and plain old-fashioned luck.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Jeremy Hellickson posted a .224 BABIP last season, the lowest average allowed among starting pitchers and just one of seven starters below .260. "I hear it; it's funny," Hellickson told Topkin. "I thought that's what we're supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don't really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I'm not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play."
Pitchers, however, tend to regress back to around .300 the next season, no matter how high or low they fall in any given year. For example, since 1996, 19 starting pitchers posted a BABIP between .200 and .250. In the following season, 18 of those 19 regressed towards .300, between 23 and 89 points worse. Only one, Barry Zito in 2002-03, avoided regression.
The following table illustrates the issue more concisely.
This is not to say that Hellickson cannot improve in other areas. Every projection system listed on FanGraphs (Steamer, Bill James, RotoChamp, Marcel, and ZiPS) has him improving his strikeout rate per nine innings from his 5.6 mark. Bill James is the most optimistic, putting him at 7.8 while ZiPS and Steamer are more realistic at 6.7 and 6.3, respectively. Striking out an additional two hitters per nine innings means two fewer balls are being put in play in that span of time. Over 189 innings, that is 42 fewer balls in play. With a .300 BABIP, that amounts to 13 fewer hits, between five and 10 percent of a pitcher's total over a full season.
Furthermore, while most of the projections have Hellickson staying relatively static with his walk rate, Steamer is the only one that projects him to increase, rather than decrease, in that area. For example, Marcel -- the baseline for all projection systems -- has him going from 3.4 walks per nine innings to under 3.2. In terms of total walks, the decline is 72 to 67. The value of a walk is roughly 0.7 runs relative to an out, so five fewer walks results in 3.5 fewer runs. No, that is not the most significant change in the world, but several of these small improvements will help Hellickson recapture anything lost in his likely BABIP regression.
On the other hand, Hellickson very well could be the next Matt Cain, for all we know. Cain has been notoriously hard to account for using defense-independent measures, as his career BABIP is .269. Last year, I studied Cain in an article for Baseball Prospectus. I concluded his consistent BABIP-defying abilities were due to three factors:
His spacious home ballpark.
Significantly above-average infield defense, especially in the range department.
A legitimate ability to induce weak pop-ups and opposite-field outfield fly balls due to his fastball.
According to StatCorner.com, Tropicana Field is pitcher-friendly, similar to AT&T Park. Left-handers hit home runs in Tampa at a rate 18 percent below the league average while right-handers were one percent under the league average. As Hellickson is right-handed, limiting the damage of lefties is key. Although he performed much worse against lefties in terms of strikeouts and walks, he allowed home runs at equivalent totals (11 to left-handers, 10 to right-handers).
Additionally, the Rays were the best defensive club in baseball according to almost every metric. The Fielding Bible projects the Rays to again be the best defensive team in baseball in 2012.
Finally, Hellickson did show the propensity to induce weak contact. Hitters put the ball in the air at a 45 percent rate, which included 16 percent that stayed in the infield. His infield pop-up rate was second-best in baseball, tied with Shaun Marcum and just 0.5 percent behind Ted Lilly. Lilly and Marcum posted a .260 and .261 BABIP, respectively. That duo has also posted a significantly below-average BABIP over the span of their careers, .274 and .270 respectively.
Hellickson shouldn't become the next J.A. Happ -- a pitcher who achieved early success and quickly flamed out due to an unsustainable BABIP correcting itself. Yes, the BABIP should correct itself in 2012 and beyond, but Hellickson will also take strides in areas he has control over, such as strikeouts, walks, and inducing weak fly balls. If you are a Rays fan, or a fantasy owner looking to get a bargain, be bullish on Jeremy Hellickson.
Bill Baer is the creator of Crashburn Alley, the SweetSpot network's Phillies blog. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.