Columnist Thomas Boswell was asked in his weekly online chat with readers about the strategy of taking Nationals starter Jeremy Hellickson out of the game after he has faced the opposing batting order twice, even when he is pitching well. Boswell said he agrees with the tactic but feels it may be a bit rigid in Hellickson’s case this season.
Boswell: First, even though there is a general MLB trend that suggests starting pitchers do worse the more often they go through a lineup, it is seldom as pronounced as it has been with Hellickson his whole career. So it makes complete sense with him, especially when the other team puts a couple of left-handed hitters in the 1-2-3 spots in their order. That means the manager knows he can flip to a left-hander (like Sammy Solis) to start the third time through the order and you’ll almost always get the lefty vs. lefty matchup you want because almost nobody ever pinch-hits for their 1-2-3 hitter. So, you minimize a third-time-through weakness and maximize a lefty-lefty matchup with your first bullpen move.
However, what they have been doing with Hellickson is extreme. This may be a case of, “We can’t explain why he is so good, and so consistent start-to-start, when we get him out after 18-to-20 hitters with, usually, a very low pitch count but maybe we have accidentally discovered something! Why change???”
If I were Hellickson, who was unwanted by 29 other teams, I’d be very happy about this! It may minimize his wins but extend his career — a lot. Also, if the Nats were to get their normal lineup back, he may (sometimes) be leading by several runs and be allowed to go a little longer.
Against Arizona Sunday night, Manager Dave Martinez had his bullpen set up well — 4-1 lead going to the bottom of the sixth. And off days on Monday and Thursday.
But … we still don’t know why Hellickson is this good — with an ERA that is half of his career ERA — or to what degree it is sustainable. The fantasy scenario is that Hellickson, if hooked quickly, might be as good when old as he was when young in his first three years — 64 starts, 3.06 ERA, 27-21. I doubt very much that this is the case. Anything under 4.00 is gravy. I assume he’s going to get bombed a couple of times. He has little margin for error. But don’t give up on him quickly when that happens. He is found money. His command of breaking balls — curves and changes — is amazing right now, as well as throwing first-pitch strikes and not getting them clobbered. It’s lucky for him and the Nats that they have seen him at his best in this veteran stage of his career. When they see him at his worst, maybe they will be patient and let him find himself again.
A final point: By and large, Hellickson has been durable. If he’s only being asked to throw 75 pitches a start, give or take 15, maybe he can stay healthy all year (or close to it).
The Nats and General Manager Mike Rizzo had their eye on him for a long time. What is wrong with the other 20 or so teams that need a better fifth starter? None of them scouted or analyzed this guy as well as the Nats?
As soon as he arrived, before the good results started coming in, the Nats were impressed and surprised that they’d gotten him because they’ve seen him in recent years with Arizona and Philadelphia. Ryan Zimmerman in particular said that Hellickson was smart, threw all his pitches for strikes and was no easy guy to hit. Especially, apparently, when you don’t get to face him a third time and he gets to use all his best ideas and pitch sequences against you in the first two at-bats and doesn’t have to save any surprises for the third time.
Read more on the Nationals: