By accepting the Philadelphia Phillies’ $17.2 million qualifying offer, Jeremy Hellickson is betting on himself in hopes of a big payday next offseason. With strong similarities to NL ERA title winner Kyle Hendricks, he’s making the right decision.
The free agent market for starting pitchers is remarkably thin this winter. 33-year-old Charlie Morton, who posted a 4.15 ERA last season and has accumulated a WAR of -0.8 over the course of his career, inked a two-year, $14 million deal with the Houston Astros last week. He will be making roughly the same amount as Corey Kluber in 2017.
Starters who might not even be guaranteed the back end of many rotations are still going to get paid this offseason. So where is the logic in a decent pitcher who has yet to break the age of 30 deciding to forgo the free agent market and accept a qualifying offer? Jeremy Hellickson took several strides in the right direction this past season, putting him in a good position to land a healthy long-term contract.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Kyle Hendricks was busy establishing himself among the elite starters in all of baseball. He finished the season an MLB-leading 188 ERA+ and won 16 games for the eventual World Series champions. The Cubs have Hendricks locked up through 2020 and won’t have to worry about him entertaining market offers anytime soon.
While Hellickson and Hendricks find themselves in very different positions financially heading into next season, they’re a lot more similar on the mound than you may think.
In 2016, Hendricks made 31 appearances. He tossed 190 innings in which he walked 45 batters, struck out 170 and threw a four-seamer, sinker and changeup more often than any other pitch. For Philadelphia, Hellickson made 32 appearances. He tossed 189 innings in which he walked 45 batters, struck out 154 and threw a four-seamer, sinker and changeup more often than any other pitch.
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By looking a little deeper, things start to get weird. Neither starter is an elite strikeout artist, relying primarily on inducing weak contact to get outs. According to Fangraphs, both finished within 0.1 percent of each other last season in inducing hard contact (Hendricks’s 25.8 percent to Hellickson’s 25.9 percent), giving them the fourth and fifth lowest marks in the majors. Hendricks holds the edge in groundball percentage (48.7 percent to 40.7 percent), but Hellickson excels at forcing pop-ups in the infield (14.3 percent IFFB to 8.9 percent).
By looking at the data from Brooks Baseball, Hendricks’ favorite pitch in 2016 was his sinker, which he threw 42.8 percent of the time. Hitters swung at the pitch in 38.3 percent of the chances they saw it, putting it in play at a rate of 19.3 percent. Hellickson preferred to throw his fastball the most frequently, opting to use the pitch 33.6 percent of the time. Hitters swung at it 40.4 percent of the chances they saw it, putting it in play at a rate of 19.3 percent.
By opting to take the Phillies’ qualifying offer to spend another season in Philadelphia, Hellickson is betting on himself to take another step forward in 2017. His WHIP has dropped each of the past three seasons, while his 3.2 WAR last year was a career high. He may not be earning Cy Young considerations like Kyle Hendricks just yet, but the numbers suggest that he very well may be on his way.