Phillies: Are They Overpaying for Jeremy Hellickson?

Apr 15, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz (R) talks with starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (L) during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 15, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz (R) talks with starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (L) during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Jeremy Hellickson will return to the Phillies on a one-year, $17.2 million deal. How does that contract compare to other pitchers with similar contracts?

Having accepted his qualifying offer of $17.2M, Jeremy Hellickson will return to the Philadelphia Phillies this year. The question circulating around though is, “Is Jeremy Hellickson worth that much money.”

Paying someone $17.2 million a year costs some teams a fortune and is nothing for others. Smaller market teams like the Rays and the Pirates can’t afford to throw around that kind of money willfully and wantonly. But the Phillies aren’t a small market team and they’re certainly not cash strapped. In fact, they have the fewest amount of dollars committed for 2017 and beyond of any team in the majors. And to add to that, they’re probably among the richest teams in the sport.

It was just two years ago at the start of the 2014 season that the Phillies flashed that payroll flexibility with an outrageous $177 million opening day payroll, the third highest in baseball. As it stands right now, they’re only obligated to pay $46.9M, the bulk of which was picked up in the last two weeks with the acquisitions of Howie Kendrick and Pat Neshak along with Hellickson’s QO acceptance.

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An extremely low payroll matched with the ability to out-spend most teams means one thing: an inordinate amount of payroll flexibility. The Phillies probably have more wiggle room than any other team in any of the four major sports. It’s that flexibility that negates Hellickson’s salary.

So in the world of subjective spending and amounts to be paid, the Phillies are just fine with Hellickson’s one year, $17M deal.

But what are the Phillies getting for that money? What kind of value does Jeremy Hellickson provide at $17.2M a year?

They should be getting a pretty good pitcher. Hellickson’s effectiveness over the last year and a half has been substantially underrated, probably due to his performance from the previous two years.

Would you be surprised to learn that Jeremy Hellickson finished last season in the top 20 in pitchers WAR? He did. He actually had the 17th best WAR (3.2) among qualifying pitchers in all of baseball. That’s better than notable players like Cole Hamels (3.0), Gio Gonzalez (2.9) and the 2015 American League Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel (2.7).

And with regards to the $17.2M he’ll earn this year, if he can put up a similar season to last year he should be well worth it.

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As of this writing, that salary would put him at number 20 on the list of highest paid starting pitchers. Directly in front of him on that list is Scott Kazmir, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Homer Bailey.

The only pitcher on that list who had a better ERA than Hellickson last year is Strasburg and the difference is minimal. Hellickson finished 2016 with a 3.71 ERA while Strasburg managed a 3.60 ERA. A key difference however is that Jeremy logged over 32 more innings than Strasburg. It’s also worth noting that Strasburg had an ERA of 9.45 over his last 20 innings of 2016 before ending his season short (again) due to injury.

The other three finished way worse than Hellickson: Kazmir had a 4.56 ERA in 136.1 IP, Zimmerman managed a 4.07 in 105.1 IP and Bailey, who was hurt most of the season only pitched 23 innings and had a dismal 6.65 ERA.

That $17.2 million is looking more and more like money well spent.

Right behind him on the salary list is Anibal Sanchez, Mike Leake and John Lackey. Again, Hellickson had a substantially better ERA than two of those three pitchers and a relatively close ERA to the other.

Sanchez pitched 153 innings and put up a whopping 5.87 ERA while Mike Leake was able to pitch in 176 innings and managed a slightly better but still not good 4.69 ERA. Lackey had an outstanding year by most accounts pitching to a 3.35 ERA in 188 innings.

That’s seven pitchers all set to make about the same as Hellickson; five haven’t performed anywhere near to as well Hellickson and two have performed just slightly better than Hellickson did last year.

Hellickson was a top prospect and a Rookie of the Year award winner. He had a 2.95 ERA his rookie year and followed it up with a 3.10 ERA season.

But it’s not just last year that Hellickson has been effective. In fact, his turnaround from back of the rotation starter to true front end starter happened just prior to the All Star break of 2015. Since his start on July 2nd of that year Hellickson has as ERA of an absolutely respectable 3.69, and that’s over a 250 innings pitched sample size.

The interesting part about this is that this may actually be who Jeremy Hellickson is, not what he’s known as.

Hellickson was highly touted as a prospect in the Rays system. In both 2010 and 2011 he was one of Baseball America’s top 20 ranked prospects, first at number 18 and then number six. To give an accurate picture of what exactly that meant at that time, Hellickosn was sandwiched in between Julio Teheran and Aroldis Chapman at five and seven respectively. Expectations at that point were very high.

He continued his success once he reached the majors, winning the AL Rookie of the year award after the 2011 season, beating out Eric Hosmer and Mark Trumbo. He finished his rookie season with an ace-ish 2.95 ERA in 189 innings. He had held opposing batters to a .210 average.

He continued that success in 2012 where he pitched 177 innings and managed a 3.10 ERA. Two seasons in and it looked as though he was going to be one of the sports best starting pitchers.

But that didn’t happen. Hellickson, for some reason, stopped being effective.

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Over the next two and a half years, from the start of 2013 until around the All Star break of 2015, Hellickson was awful. He pitched a combined 320 innings to an ERA of 5.11. In the middle of that the Rays traded him to the Diamondbacks for two low-level prospects. He only pitched the one season in Arizona before they traded him to the Philiies.

Some people saw his poor performance as the inevitable regression that his underlying stats were indicative of all along. Hellickson had never managed to impress with the advanced metrics: his K rate was too low, his BB rate was too high, his BABIP was unsustainable (even though he sustained it for over two seasons). And it’s entirely possible that it’s all true.

However, Phillies fans can take solace in the fact that 2016 was his best year in strikeout percentage and base on balls percentage. His BABIP is still relatively low but at this point, five plus years in, it really can’t be considered luck anymore.

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So it remains to be seen exactly what Hellickson is and if he is worth the price they’ll be paying. He’s been excellent for long stretches of time and he’s been bad for at least one extended stretch. He is, however, currently on a roll and for the Phillies front office and the team’s fans they certainly hope he can stay that way and turn the $17M into an extreme bargain loaded with value.