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Jeremy Hellickson, BABIP, and the divide between playing and analyzing


In yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times, Marc Topkin talked with Jeremy Hellickson and Rays manager Joe Maddon about Hellickson’s insanely low .223 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) allowed in 2011. This has been a continuing discussion in Rays-land over the offseason, as many have questioned Hellickson’s ability to sustain his 2011 performance without racking up some more strikeouts. It is the type of article we have seen many times before. A reporter asks a player about a non-mainstream stat that reflects negatively on that player’s performance and the player brushes it off, saying that he does not and will not give that particular statistic the time of day. Generally, these types of articles send off ripples of scorn through the more sabermetrically inclined areas of the internet, with people asserting that the particular player involved should be more open to new ways of thinking.

This type of occasion often leads me to consider the disconnect between analysts and players, and how that disconnect probably needs to exist. Sure, stats-oriented fans tend to fall in love with players who admit to being stats geeks themselves, such as Brandon McCarthy and Brian Bannister. But those players are the exception, as most are probably better off not worrying about their stats.

This Hellickson topic is a perfect example, as it boils down to a pitcher allowing balls in play vs. piling up strikeouts. This quote from Hellickson is what grabs me the most.

“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.”

An analytical fan may read that quote and think that Hellickson is wrong, that his job is to miss bats, not to allow opposing hitters to put the ball in play. After all, a strikeout is the only guaranteed way to keep a hitter from reaching base. Fans often scoff at the term “pitch to contact,” particularly when used in reference to a team’s philosophy of developing pitchers. If accumulating strikeouts and avoiding balls in play is one of the most important aspects of successful pitching, why would a team encourage a pitcher to avoid strikeouts?

Obviously strikeouts are important, but there is a difference between a pitcher’s results and his approach. A pitcher that tries to avoid bats at all costs is probably asking for trouble, as this can lead to nibbling off the plate, falling behind hitters, high pitch counts, etc. On the other hand, a pitcher who attacks the different quadrants of the strike zone and relies on his stuff to generate strikeouts will likely see much more success. I imagine it would be very difficult for a pitcher to maintain this mindset while also focusing on the idea that more strikeouts always equals better pitching.

Anyway, all rambling aside, Craig Calcaterra wrote about the Hellickson article at HardballTalk yesterday, with this being the money quote.

It matters no more that he fully understands and appreciates BABIP theory than it matters that an eagle understands aerodynamics. They do what they do and they try to do it the best they can. Leave it to the analysts — both on the outside and those inside the Rays organization — to figure out why it happened and predict whether it can happen again.

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