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June 21, 2013

Raising Aces

The Cain Madness and a Troubled Helix

by Doug Thorburn

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Matt Cain and Jeremy Hellickson are similar pitchers, with a likeness that extends to stuff, mechanics, and stats. Both pitchers have fastballs that average 91-92 mph on the gun, with plus command of great off-speed stuff to keep opposing batters off-balance. Each uses a 77-mph curveball around 12 percent of the time, but while Hellickson uses an 80-mph changeup at a 30 percent clip, Cain is a 15 percent cambio guy whose off-speed pitch comes in at a heavy 86 mph on average. He also adds a slider with the same frequency and velocity as his change. I have touted both pitchers for their excellent balance and strong posture, the underlying ingredients of top-notch pitch repetition, although the hurlers also share an affinity toward slow momentum.

Hellickson might be lower on the totem pole and several years Cain's junior, but the negative connotations associated with his profile are eerily reminiscent of those that Cain endured early in his own career. Armchair analysts who choose to focus solely on certain stats and eschew batted-ball numbers due to their inherent volatility have screamed “luck” in a reach to explain the consistently low BABIPs of both pitchers, with constant calls for regression to the league mean. Those same analysts can now be found basking under a cloud of smug, as both Hellickson and Cain are currently in the midst of the worst seasons of their respective careers.

Cain

Pre-2013

2013

IP

1536.7

95.0

ERA

3.27

4.55

BABIP

.268

.253

K %

20.2%

22.6%

BB %

8.3%

7.5%

HR %

2.0%

3.9%

Other than a home run rate that is nearly double his career mark, Cain's component stats fail to explain his bloated ERA. His strikeout and walk numbers are above his established levels, and the outlier BABIP that has been his trademark is below his career levels. His poor run-prevention may simply be the result of misfortune and few extra baseballs clearing the wall, but this evaluator is unsatisfied without digging a bit deeper into the forensic evidence.

Cain has had a penchant for the disaster inning this season, particularly when facing the Cardinals. St. Louis dropped a nine-spot on Cain in his second start of the year, with all of the runs scoring in the fourth inning. The Cards turned the trick again on June 1st, plating seven runners during the third frame of the first game of their doubleheader with the Giants. Cain has pitched a combined 9.7 innings versus St. Louis this season, blanking them for all but those two frames, and the 16 earned runs allowed during the implosions have added a full run-and-half to his ERA. Even more intriguing is the fact that not one of those runs was scored via the long ball.

Though it might seem trivial at first glance, the snowball effect has taken place numerous times this season, if at a less egregious pace. Cain has surrendered four or more earnies five times this season, and in each case the runs were scored in bunches, as there is not one single-run inning among those five ballgames. The issue is magnified when looking at Cain's stats when he is pitching from the stretch versus the windup.

2013

Bases Empty

Men On

PA

249

140

BABIP

.207

.341

O-OBP

.237

.382

O-SLG %

.320

.567

K %

24.1%

20.0%

BB %

6.8%

8.6%

HR %

2.8%

5.7%

Cain has an OPS split of 392 points when pitching with men on base versus when the bags are empty, including a massive gap in his BABIP. The strikeouts are down while the walks have escalated, and though he has shown these same trends throughout his career, the skyrocketing BABIP and homer rate are completely off the grid.

Career

Bases Empty

Men On

PA

4040

2678

BABIP

.269

.265

O-OBP

.287

.306

O-SLG %

.364

.365

K %

21.0%

19.3%

BB %

7.6%

9.2%

HR %

2.2%

2.1%

The results are more than a bit odd for a pitcher who is so highly regarded for his consistency, both statistically and mechanically, and without any further evidence we might conclude that this is a fluke. But the visual evidence from his blow-up in St. Louis sheds a little more light on the cause of his implosion.

Cain was not hit exceptionally hard, aside from perhaps Daniel Descalso's warning-track double that started the barrage, but nearly all of the knocks came on hittable pitches. The ongoing trend throughout the inning was that Cain was elevating his pitches just above Buster Posey's targets, allowing batters to hit the ball on a line to all fields. Not everything that went wrong that inning can be attributed to Cain; Allen Craig scooped a slider off the ground for a base knock, and Matt Carpenter went with an outside pitch for a solid opposite-field single, but the Giants hurler was just enough off the mark to give the Cardinal batters good pitches to hit. Cain was still devastating when he did line things up, including a gorgeous fastball on the low-outside edge that froze Matt Holliday for the backwards K.

All told, Cain struck out nine Cardinals against zero walks in the game, and the nine hits against him in the third inning included seven singles and two doubles. It was the fastball that got eaten alive, with seven of the nine hits coming against the heater, as pitches with little movement that found too much plate were vulnerable. He certainly pitched better than the runs-allowed column would suggest, but the seven-run outburst in the third left an indelible mark on the back of Cain's baseball card.

The root of the issue comes down to timing, though the difference is subtle. In both of the Cardinal games, the onslaught began after Cain had pitched from the stretch for the first time in the contest. His timing pattern is very different between windup and stretch, with momentum that earned a 35 grade with nobody on base but a faster pace with runners aboard, and sometimes he takes some time to adjust. When Cain is too quick into foot strike, he initiates his rotation a bit too late to achieve full extension at release point, resulting in pitches that rise above the intended location. The damage on June 1st demonstrated how even great pitchers can get hammered when their timing goes just slightly awry, and that sometimes it pays to miss a target by feet rather than inches.

***

Jeremy Hellickson has learned a similar lesson this season:

Pre-2013

2013

IP

402.3

91.7

ERA

3.06

5.50

BABIP

.245

.302

K %

16.5%

18.5%

BB %

8.4%

5.0%

HR %

3.1%

3.4%

Hellickson's component stats also have some backwards trends, including an increased K rate in 2013 in addition to the lowest walk rate of his career. His home run frequency is a bit higher than normal, but the glaring outlier in this data set is a BABIP that has risen from one of the lowest marks in the game to one that is roughly league average. Some would argue that his previous BABIP levels were unsustainable and that he was due for a correction, and there is certainly some truth to the statement, but his dramatic jump is indicative of a more fundamental issue with his approach.

The similarities to Cain continue to mount when we look at the performance of Helix with runners aboard versus the bases empty this season:

2013

Bases Empty

Men On

PA

239

139

BABIP

.256

.379

O-OBP

.276

.360

O-SLG %

.388

.583

K %

18.8%

18.0%

BB %

5.9%

3.6%

HR %

2.9%

4.3%

Hellickson is his typical shutdown self when he pitches from the windup this year, but the wheels fall off the BUS when he gets into the stretch, in which opposing batters have enjoyed a 279-point OPS advantage. This has not always been the case, and in fact he displayed a reverse trend last season, while his numbers from his first two full years indicate that he had more success in minimizing opponents' power when runners were on base.

2011-12

Bases Empty

Men On

PA

956

559

BABIP

.239

.251

O-OBP

.288

.313

O-SLG %

.419

.329

K %

15.3%

17.0%

BB %

7.0%

11.4%

HR %

3.7%

2.0%

Hellickson gave up free passes at a higher frequency when bases were occupied in 2011-12, but he is hardly walking anyone from the stretch this year. Conventional wisdom might regard this as a good thing, but Hellickson is a pitcher who lives on the edges of the strike zone, refusing to give in to batter strengths while at the same time taking advantage of the ridiculous framing abilities of his batterymate Jose Molina. The numbers indicate that Hellickson, like Cain, is struggling to command his pitches within the strike zone, resulting in hard-hit balls when his stuff catches too much of the plate.

One need look no further than his June 13 start against the Royals, a game in which Hellickson surrendered a Cain-like eight earned runs in just a single inning. It was the sixth start of the season with at least five earned runs allowed for the right-hander, this after he had just three such blow-up starts in the first 64 games of his career. Hellickson had been cruising in this game, shutting out KC for the first five innings while facing just one batter over the minimum, but his pitch command flew out the window once he was forced into the stretch.

Nearly every one of the hits off of Hellickson came on a pitch that missed Molina's target and drifted over the plate. The final, fatal blow was a three-run jack from Elliot Johnson, who both started and finished the brutality against Hellickson, knocking him from a game that was suddenly 8-0. Several of Hellickson's pitches in the sixth inning veered away from the intended location and toward the middle of the dish, and those pitches that did avoid the hot zone were too far off the mark to yield swings. Take a look at the distribution of his pitches in that fateful frame:

Hellickson's only saving grace was the framing of Molina, who got strike calls on four different pitches that missed wide of the zone. Of the 12 no-doubt strikes, eight were converted into hits by the Kansas City offense.

Despite all of the similarities to Cain, the issues with Hellickson this season have a much different diagnosis than his Giants counterpart. With the exception of the first batter of the inning, every hit against Helix came while he was pitching from the stretch. The culprit is a major mechanical discrepancy when he gets taken out of the windup this year: the dreaded slide step.

Every pitch that came from the stretch in the sixth inning was executed with a slide step, even with runners like Salvador Perez squatting on the first-base bag, and any regular reader of Raising Aces knows that I abhor the technique. Helix has used the slide step from the stretch in the past, but never with such regularity, as his past trend was to mix in the strategy now and then while more often leaning toward his standard leg lift. For evidence, we need look no further than his August 20 start against these same Royals last season, and the following sequence of three consecutive batters from the sixth inning of that game:

Hellickson under-rotated the delivery that included a slide step, resulting in a pitch that missed wide to the arm-side for a walk. He had no trouble hitting his mark with a regular leg lift to the next batter, inducing a double-play ball that was botched on the back half of the play, but he hit the replay button with a sick changeup that gave the Rays infield a second crack at the DP to finish the inning.

I am a big fan of Hellickson's delivery from the stretch when he ditches the slide step, as the big leg-kick combined with an uptick of momentum gives him an advantage at release point. His regular stretch plays even better than his windup delivery due to his typically slow motion with nobody on base, but the slide-step strategy robs him of that advantage while compounding the flaws inherent in a shallow release point. I have written about this multiple times, including last season's Throwdown article with Hellickon and Zack Greinke, as well as within Hellickson's mechanics capsule for the 2013 SP Guide.

Throwdown: “The occasional use of a slide step was not doing him any favors from the stretch, an issue that dinged Hellickson's overall grade for repetition despite the dearth of pitches thrown with runners on base. In addition to throwing a wrench into his timing, the slide step acted to shrink Hellickson's stride and further mute his release distance.”

SP Guide: “Hellickson has a slow delivery when pitching from the windup but his momentum is far superior from the stretch, a factor which helps to explain his outlier performance with men on base.”

What is most maddening is that Hellickson has no functional use for the slide step due to an excellent pick-off move. He allowed just seven steals in 10 attempts last season, and even if he could magically slide-step his way to a perfect 10-for-10, it would be foolish to alter his delivery for one-third of all of his pitches for an entire season just to catch an additional seven baserunners. I would prefer that he focus on generating outs at the plate, and I can imagine that the forward-thinking Rays would agree.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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