The Phillies should trade their Opening Day starter (and soon)

Since taking over the Phillies’ helm after the 2015 season, general manager Matt Klentak has been a champion of patience. Klentak’s predecessor, Ruben Amaro Jr., had long been hesitant to commence a rebuild as the team sputtered between 2012 and 2014. On the other hand, Klentak has unashamedly labeled the current state of the team as a rebuild over the last couple years. Many of the team’s recent off-season moves reflect their rebuilding status; rather than signing free agents to long-term deals, Klentak & Co. have opted to acquire low-risk, high-reward players on one- and two-year contracts instead. In essence, each of these acquisitions is a low-cost lottery ticket. If the player exceeds expectations with the Phillies, the team can flip him to a contender for a mid-level prospect or two. If the player fails to perform, no hair off the Phillies’ backs – their commitment to the player, both in dollars and years, was limited anyway. See the following list of the Phillies’ acquisitions under Klentak which fit this profile:

Jeremy Hellickson (1 yr, $7MM)*
David Hernandez (1 yr, $3.9MM)
Charlie Morton (1 yr, $8MM + $1MM buyout)

Joaquin Benoit (1 yr., $7.5MM)
Howie Kendrick (1 yr., $10MM)
Pat Neshek (1 yr., $6.5MM)
Michael Saunders (1 yr., $9MM + $1MM buyout)
*acquired in trade, details represent remaining contract value at start of 2017 season
In actuality, the above list also serves as a comprehensive account of all the notable Phillies signings in the ’16 and ’17 off-seasons. So, thus far in the rebuilding process, the front office haven’t strayed whatsoever from their “lottery ticket” plan. Some of these players, like Hernandez and Morton, have already been released from the team (i.e. they failed to accumulate any trade value). Jeremy Hellickson, on the other hand, remains on the team as of the beginning of May – but if things go right for the Phillies, he shouldn’t be there for much longer.
Aside from a recent rocky outing against the Cubs’ potent offense, Hellickson’s basic pitching statistics have been impressive. Not counting his start against Chicago, Hellickson has pitched to the tune of a 1.80 ERA and 4-0 record through the end of April. Of course, if there’s anything the last decade of baseball has taught us, it’s that box score pitching stats don’t tell the whole story, and there’s certainly much more to Hellickson’s April than his record and ERA indicate.
Essentially, there’s a whole heck of a lot of reason to believe that the Phillies’ Opening Day starter is bound for some heavy regression over the rest of the season. In thirty April innings, Hellickson struck out just eleven batters (a 9.6 K%), and his opposing BABIP was only .196. Further, he ran a strand rate of over 86% (the average is traditionally around 70%). For these reasons, FIP and xFIP aren’t quite so bullish on Hellickson, with respective values of 3.68 and 5.29, both far cries from his 1.80 ERA.
The good news, however, is that there are a few legitimate reasons for optimism. Hellickson’s command, for instance, has been sharp. Through the entirety of April, the righthander allowed only three walks, and he did an excellent job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone. What’s more, batters have swung at, and made contact with, a significantly higher percentage of Hellickson’s pitches in 2017, which is likely the main factor behind his declines in both K% and BB%. This next chart says it all:
Additionally, while the league average O-Swing% has declined a tick to 29%, Hellickson’s rose to nearly 34% through April. Even better, batters are making contact with Hellickson’s out-of-zone pitches at incredibly high rates. Hellickson’s April O-Contact% was a mammoth 84.6%, compared to the MLB average of 63%. This further explains Hellickson’s success in the absence of strikeouts. He’s gotten batters to chase bad pitches, and when they do, they’ve been making a ton of (presumably weak) contact.

What’s interesting, though, is that the contact against Hellickson hasn’t actually been all that weak. Through April, Hellickson’s Hard% actually increased by almost one percent over last year, to 26.7%. Likewise, his Soft% has fallen to 18.1%, nearly two percentage points lower than last year. Even worse for Hellickson is that his fly ball rate has gone through the ceiling during this time frame, from 34.4% to 46.9%. Through his first four starts, Hellickson was giving up virtually no home runs – his HR/FB% was an absurdly low 4.4%.
In some ways, Hellickson’s difficult outing against Chicago sums up his downside, and acts as a preview of the regression that is likely to come. During the start, Hellickson only walked two batters, but only struck out two. He also gave up a trio of home runs to the Cubs’ formidable lineup, allowing a total of six earned runs in what would become an 8-3 Chicago victory. As illustrated against the Cubs, Hellickson’s currently miniscule HR/FB% will eventually come back to Earth, and surviving with such a low K% is unlikely to be as sustainable as his April would indicate.
When Hellickson does regress, one of the Phillies’ strongest trade chips will lose a significant chunk of its value. The team’s Triple-A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, has recently housed such options as Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson, Ben Lively, Mark Appel, and Adam Morgan. Were Hellickson to be traded, each of these pitchers could theoretically replace him in the rotation (Pivetta is currently taking injured starter Aaron Nola‘s spot). As a rebuilding team, winning games in 2017 matters far less than winning games in 2020, so, if Hellickson is traded, the team should not hesitate to call up a starter deserving of such a promotion. Of course, the first week of May is far from the optimal time to sell off assets. In early July, though, lots of teams can convince themselves that they’re Wild Card contenders, and trading Hellickson should be far easier.

So, the Phillies should be prepared for Hellickson to regress, and should be fully conscious of the fact that his coming regression will detract from his trade value. For that reason, it might make sense for the team to trade him sooner rather than later, as long as he continues to put up strong surface-level numbers. Contending teams are far more incentivized to overpay for middling assets – heck, the Phils got Pivetta for Jonathan Papelbon – and, if Hellickson can continue walking his low HR/FB%, low K% tightrope, the Phils might be able to recoup some decent value for him. If the team gets a strong offer in early- to mid-June, it might be a good idea to strongly consider accepting, before Hellickson’s regression kicks in.

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