In what equates to a procedural move more than an actual demotion, the Tampa Bay Rays optioned right-handed starter Jeremy Hellickson to Class A Charlotte on Tuesday evening. The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year and reigning Gold Glove winner was smacked around on Monday by the Kansas City Royals -- the latest rough outing in what has become a rough season.
Through his first two-plus years in the majors, Hellickson owned a 3.06 ERA in just more than 400 innings of work. His 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was acceptable and he allowed a baserunner per inning. Armed with a low-90s fastball, a good curveball and a very good changeup, he mixed speeds and location in a way that made up for his lack of pure stuff. His ability to change speeds was believed to help induce weak contact which led to lower batting averages on balls in play and a big part of his stellar ERA. That said, some believed his success was a by-product of luck and predicted regression last season, but there was little in terms of a sophomore slump.
Meanwhile, the 2013 season has been unkind to Hellickson. After allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings on Monday, his ERA stood at 5.21 after 27 starts. The .245 BABIP he previously carried jumped to .313. His biggest struggles came with two outs, where he allowed a third of his overall hits and 45 percent of his total earned runs. Terms such as bad luck and regression to the mean are convenient in this case. On the other hand, luck is likely one of a number of reasons he has labored this season.
Without the natural ability of a David Price or Matt Moore, Hellickson has to be pinpoint with his pitches. This not only means throwing strikes, but throwing quality strikes. Doing so allows him to get quick outs, jump ahead in counts and expand the strike zone with his secondary pitches in an effort to get hitters to chase.
From 2010 to 2012, Hellickson got the opposition to swing out of the zone 37 percent of the time with his changeup and curveball. He -- most often purposely -- missed the zone nearly 60 percent of the time. In 2013, 48 percent of these pitches are finding the zone. Hitters are still falling for his changeup, but they are spitting on bad curves. After getting hitters to chase on nearly one-third of his hooks out of the zone in the previous two-plus seasons, that number is below 25 percent this season. The less favorable location has led to a .271/.313/.408 line on his secondary pitches, a huge leap from the .202/.247/.342 he had in seasons prior.
Hellickson is also struggling with his fastball command. Though his breaking ball and off-speed are better pitches, a well-located fastball is paramount to his success. Hellickson has become extremely predictable with his fastball location this season. Of the nearly 1,400 fastballs he has thrown, more than 75 percent have been located middle or arm-side. Without the threat of going inside, left-handed batters are looking middle-away and having great success in doing so. The inability to move the fastball also diminishes the effectiveness of his other pitches as the incentive to pursue pitches out of the zone decreases.
Luck and location aside, Hellickson has not helped himself in certain sequences, as well. With men on base, he is going to his fastball 58 percent of the time this season. That number is up from 50 percent in preceding seasons. Hellickson has also had ill-timed secondary pitches. Perhaps the most glaring instance came earlier this month against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. With two men on and two out in the third inning of a scoreless game, Hellickson threw an outside fastball for ball one. Instead of attacking the career .148 hitter with a more competitive heater, he inexplicably threw an 80 mph changeup right down the middle of the plate. Kershaw poked what equated to a batting practice fastball into right field for a two-run single. The Dodgers won 8-2.
Tampa Bay sent Hellickson to Charlotte to rest. He will not throw a pitch for the Stone Crabs and will be recalled early next week when rosters expand. Rays management maintains Hellickson is healthy, so perhaps the time off is as much of a mental break as it is a physical break. The hope is he returns refreshed and ready to help the franchise reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons. He can do that with improved command, improved sequencing and, of course, a little bit of improved fortune would not hurt, either.