Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova, And Surprising Directions

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson reacts after being taken out of the game by manager Joe Maddon against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 2-1. Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The way that Jeremy Hellickson and Ivan Nova performed in 2011 seemed to indicate something about how they'd perform in 2012. Surprise! Sort of.

Earlier Monday morning, Jon Morosi tweeted out the following message: "Ivan Nova leads the American League with nine wins. Say what you will about the statistic. That is surprising." That is not actually surprising at all, I don't think, and also who cares, because pitcher wins, and augh I can't get this tweet out of my head. But Morosi did get me thinking about Ivan Nova, and that got me thinking about Nova and Jeremy Hellickson, and now here we are, with this.

Last season, both Nova and Hellickson were strong contenders for the American League Rookie of the Year award. Hellickson wound up winning, and Nova wound up finishing fourth, behind Mark Trumbo and Eric Hosmer and in front of Michael Pineda. Hellickson received 17 first-place votes, Nova received one, and then the AL East added Pineda too to claim the top three 2011 AL rookie starting pitchers.

There was a thing about Hellickson, though. He didn't generate many strikeouts. Over 189 innings, he whiffed just 117 dudes, or 15 percent of the batters he faced. And there was a thing about Nova, as well. He didn't generate many strikeouts. Over 165 innings, he whiffed just 98 dudes, or 14 percent of the batters he faced.

Last season, the average American League starter generated better than 17 percent strikeouts, so both Hellickson and Nova were comparatively subpar. It's possible to succeed without that many strikeouts, of course, but if Hellickson didn't up his whiffs, he probably wouldn't post many more sub-3 ERAs. If Nova didn't up his whiffs, he probably wouldn't post many more 16-4 records.

Analysts love strikeouts, for good reason, so Nova and Hellickson became hot topics. As I could tell, the consensus was that Nova would and could be effective, but he'd be limited by his hittability. By limiting walks and generating grounders, Nova could be a fine starting pitcher, but he probably wouldn't advance. As for Hellickson, that discussion was more interesting. Surface analysis suggested that Hellickson was lucky to post such a low ERA with such a low strikeout rate. But deeper analysis revealed that Hellickson missed an above-average number of bats. Thus, it wouldn't necessarily be Hellickson's ERA that would regress way up; it could be Hellickson's strikeout rate that would regress up instead. Based on Hellickson's amount of allowed contact in 2011, we would've expected more strikeouts than he recorded.

That's a lot of background, and now we're through plenty of action in 2012. Both Nova and Hellickson have started 13 times, and their results have not been what one might've expected. Two tables, for your perusal:

Nova K% Contact%
2011 14% 85%
2012 20% 80%

Hellickson K% Contact%
2011 15% 78%
2012 16% 82%

Nova's strikeouts are way up this season. Through 85 innings, he's whiffed 73 batters, with a reduced contact rate allowed. He's also generated fewer grounders than he did, a possible side-effect of pitching higher in the zone, but his ground-ball rate is still good. Most of the numbers suggest that Nova has improved as a starter, depending on what you make of his elevated home-run rate. If you figure there's luck involved in his 2011 and 2012 numbers, he's taken a step forward.

As for Hellickson, the strikeouts have remained basically the same. The table says they're up one percent, but they're actually up four-tenths of one percent, which is meaningless. Instead of having his strikeout rate catch up to his contact rate, Hellickson has had his contact rate catch up to his strikeout rate.

Here's one way I like to look at things like this. Pitchers who had similar strikeout rates to Hellickson's in 2011:

Pitchers who had similar contact rates to Hellickson's in 2011:

Pitchers who have similar strikeout rates to Hellickson's in 2012:

Pitchers who have similar contact rates to Hellickson's in 2012:

Hellickson's walk rate has gotten a tiny bit better, and his strikeout rate has gotten a tiny bit better, and his ground-ball rate has gotten a tiny bit better, but Hellickson is being saved by his defense and run-suppressing environment more than anything else. Hellickson's peripherals are waving all kinds of red flags.

Where Ivan Nova was expected to generate the same pedestrian rate of strikeouts, he's taken a surprising step forward. Where Jeremy Hellickson was expected to generate a higher rate of strikeouts, he's taken a surprising ... step ... to the side? Or he hasn't taken a step at all. Let's say he hasn't taken a step at all. He's stood there, anxious.

What's behind Nova's improvement, and Hellickson's lack of improvement? What am I, God? I don't know. That would be something for another article. For this one, we're reminded of something Rob Neyer once wrote:

What's also true: Most players don't fundamentally change, except naturally. A great 23-year-old hitter will probably become a great 28-year-old hitter. A terrible 25-year-old pitcher will probably become a terrible 33-year-old pitcher. And so on.

But not always. Which is what makes baseball a lot more interesting than it would otherwise be.

Baseball players tend to follow fairly predictable paths, except for when they don't. At times, it can be incredibly frustrating that they don't. God bless that they don't.

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