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April 18, 2011

Fantasy Focus

The Road to Hellickson Is Paved With Good Intentions

by Marc Normandin

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On Mondays throughout the season, Fantasy Focus looks at rookies and prospects likely to end up in the majors this year. As the minor league season isn’t even two weeks old yet, this week we will focus our efforts entirely on MLB rookies.

You don't need me to tell you that you should own Jeremy Hellickson in fantasy baseball. The rookie hurler is owned in 95 percent of CBS leagues and 100 percent of ESPN's, thanks to being highly touted—Kevin Goldstein rated him the #1 prospect in the Rays’ organization, calling him the “most polished pitching prospect in the game,” and I rated him as a two-star pitcher in the American League, stating that if he “throws more innings than is listed, and doesn't deal with the same first-year AL East struggles that Wade Davis did, then he's more deserving of three-star status.”

Apparently, you do need me to tell you to start Hellickson, though. Over the first four weeks with baseball that counts, his ownership percentage has remained static at CBS, but his start percentage has fluctuated. Hellickson was used by just 53 percent of those who own him in the first week of the season, rose to 71 percent in week two, and stuck at 65 percent the last two weeks.

Hellickson hasn’t come out of the gate with guns blazing, posting an ERA of 4.50 over three starts with 14 strikeouts in 18 innings, but it seems odd for a pitcher to be so collectively recognized as being a must-own, yet also be considered a risky proposition to use consistently.

In the past, Hellickson has pitched well enough to have earned your trust. He was ridiculous at Triple-A Durham in 2010: over 117 2/3 innings, the right-hander had an ERA of 2.45, struck out 9.4 per nine (against just 2.7 walks per nine, for a K/BB of 3.5), and allowed just five homers. He topped this off by tossing 36 1/3 frames in the majors between four starts and six relief appearances, punching out 33 hitters and walking just eight, though he did allow five homers—the majors, and the AL East specifically, are a different beast than Triple-A when it comes to offense.

That production earned him this praise from Goldstein in February:

Hellickson does not have a below-average pitch, and his plus-plus command and control makes him one of the most frustrating pitchers to face. He can dial his fastball up to the mid-90s at times, but he prefers to sit in the 90-93 mph range, which provides him with pinpoint accuracy as well as the ability to cut or sink the pitch. His plus changeup has plenty of depth and fade, and his curveball is at least big-league average. His polish is off the charts, as he has a mature understanding of how to go after hitters in terms of sequencing and location, and he pitches with utter fearlessness. “I'd never compare any pitcher to Greg Maddux,” said one scout, “but with Hellickson, I'm at least tempted to.”

Thus far this season, he has had some trouble utilizing that command, but given his history, it should return soon. He went seven innings against Minnesota Sunday, using only 98 pitches, and walked just a pair of Twins, so it’s possible it’s already coming back. Start Hellickson more consistently, as he has the ability to be an important member of your fantasy staff.

In AL-only leagues, where sometimes it makes more sense to stock up on elite relief pitching options rather than risk hurting your rate stats with roster-filler starters, two Royals rookies are worth a look. Aaron Crow, who has a career ERA in the minors of 5.26 and posted a 5.73 ERA between High-A and Double-A in 2010, has started strong in his debut season in the bigs. Over six appearances and 8 2/3 innings, Crow has 10 strikeouts against two free passes, and has allowed no runs, earned or otherwise.

The move to the bullpen may have helped Crow, who was a starter in all but one of his 32 minor league appearances. He is averaging 95 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball, inducing swings-and-misses 8.8 percent of the time that he throws it, and has used his slider effectively as well. If Crow, who punched out 7.9 batters per nine as a starter even as he struggled in the minors, can keep blowing his heater by hitters consistently, he should be able to help bolster your team’s strikeout totals.

Tim Collins, the diminutive southpaw the Royals acquired from the Braves last year, also made the Kansas City roster, and has impressed during his first eight innings. Collins has struck out 13 already, good for 14.6 punch outs per nine innings (and 37 percent of his total batters faced)—though, unlike Crow, he has had some early issues with walks, with six allowed already.

Goldstein rated Collins a three-star prospect, and had plenty of good things to say about him prior to the start of the season:

Collins' fastball is still shocking to scouts. With arguably the fastest arm action in the minors, he somehow generates 90-93 mph fastballs out of the body of a bat boy and can touch 95. The pitch is made even more effective by a naturally deceptive delivery that hides the ball from hitters. His changeup is a true plus pitch with outstanding arm action and late run that makes him actually more effective versus right-handed hitters than lefties. His overhand curveball is at least average, and at times flashes plus.

In his minor league career, Collins walked 3.9 per nine—worse than the league average, but certainly tolerable for a reliever with his strikeout stuff. In the long run, he should not hurt your WHIP, though his inning totals will be low as a reliever. Still, as someone who struck out 13.3 per nine in the minors, he should certainly be worth his roster spot.

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Premium Article Prospectus Hit and Run... (04/18)
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