Reviewing Cobb and Hellickson: Similar Approach, Differing Results

I wanted to kick off this first look at how 2013 fared for our starters by looking at two guys that have a similar repertoire and usage patterns, but got wildly different results. My love of Alex Cobb is no secret, but the things that I like best about him are all things that Jeremy Hellickson attempts to emulate. Let’s start off by comparing their summaries:


On the left is Alex Cobb and on the right is Jeremy Hellickson. Cobb saw lefties at a higher rate (63% vs. 54%) and we see that both use their fastball the same amount of the time. Cobb mixes it up better throwing a higher rate of secondary stuff, while Helly leans a on his fastball more with both throwing the heater in the zone at the same rate. Cobb comes in the zone more with his breaking ball with Helly throwing more strikes with the change up, but these rates aren’t all that wide. The swing rates are even closer as they get an incredible amount of swings on the change up and batters don’t pull the trigger all that much on the fastball and breaking ball. While each gets strong results on the change, with Cobb having a strong advantage, we see a big difference on the other pitches. Cobb’s breaking ball is quite a bit above-average with his fastball closer to his peer, but still good. Helly’s breaking ball and fastball both garnered pretty bad results.

Against same-siders, we see similar fastball usage with Helly predominately using the change as his secondary pitch and a more even mix from Cobber. The zone rates are close, again, with Helly’s breaking ball not being much of a threat to be a strike, comparatively. Batters rarely offer at Cobb’s breaking ball while Helly sees a slight increase in swing rate and we can notice the opposite happening with the change. The change ups are close in RV100 with Helly having slightly better results, but again we see wide-splits with the breaking and fast balls. Cobb is slightly below average with the breaking ball, but Hellickson’s is basically useless which probably explains his hesitation to use it more and we see a very big difference in the effectiveness of the fastball.

So while these guys might use their pitches in the same manner getting strikes and swings at close rates we see an incredible gulf in their run values, especially, on the non-offspeed pitches. Hellickson looks like a one-pitch pony here with his breaking ball being a pretty bad pitch. Meanwhile, Cobb uses his interplay of three very good pitches to keep batters off balance day and night. Let’s dig into the evolution of each pitch over the course of the season to see what’s edible and what should be spit upon the ground:

For most of the season Cobb’s breaking ball wasn’t particularly good, but he made vast strides after coming back from the injury to close out the season incredibly well. I was asked the other day if I thought Cobb’s approach would be sustainable as batters started swinging more at his curveball and it looks like that batter adjustment has already been made after taking the pitch much more often to start the season. As the gap between swings and strikes tightened, however we see where he had most of his success. The pitch is good enough that batters can’t go up there just giving away strikes, but on the other hand, they’re not able to do a whole lot even when the are swinging as Cobb is able to induce empty swings and weak contact, alike. How about Helly:

Helix’s greatest success with the pitch came over the middle to the end of the season before closing on a sour note. Again, we see that success seems to correlate with slim gaps between strikes and swings, though most of the variation occurs on Hellickson’s ability to throw it out of the zone as batters showed a general downward trend in swing-rate with not a whole lot of volatility. It can be inferred that this should be more of a put away pitch when ahead in the count because when batters are taking they seem to have more success. Let’s move on to the bread and butter for these guys:

Just wow. That ravine early in the season is just incredible as batters showed very high swing rates, particularly relative to the percent of pitches in the zone. Here we can see a batter adjustment play out, however, as batters tended to show more of an appreciation for the pitch leading to lower swing rates over the course of the season. This is an incredibly good pitch as it spent nearly the entire season as better than average and some of those troughs are to die for. How about Helly:

Jeremy’s change started out strongly, before showing a solid trend of becoming worse over the course of the season. This, and other charts below, probably give a good indication that his elbow wasn’t right as the season progressed as we see him go from solid results to much worse. Even at the end of the season when he got back to inducing tons of swings on pitches out of the zone we can see that the pitch was still worse than average, though it did improve a bit over the last couple weeks of the season. Let’s look at the fastball:

Cobb’s fastball to lefties seemed to be a pitch that got worse over the course of the season, but even here there’s some bright spots. After it was at it’s worst he started throwing less strikes with the pitch while not seeing an appreciable change in swing rates leading to better results. It’s nice to see that when he’s not getting desired results he can make the necessary tweaks to see future success. How about Helix:

Hellickson’s worst stretch with the pitch was to start off the year before alternating wild success with mild failure. I doubt this fastball to lefties will ever be a good pitch, but if he can keep close to the average it should allow for his great change up to see even better results. The mirror between swings and strikes indicate, to me, that he doesn’t have a whole lot of deception on the pitch so any groove he gets in between throwing strikes and balls should never last all that long. He needs to keep mixing it up if he’s going to walk this razor-thin margin. Let’s shift gears and look at how they fared against righties starting with the bendy stuff:

Pretty big difference between the first and the second halves here in terms of effectiveness despite what appears to be similar zone and swing rates. Cobber was able to steal a few more strikes down the stretch, but we can infer that batters stopped having as much success when they chose to swing. It’s anybody’s guess if that’s related to luck on balls in play or if he saw an increase in swing strikes (this is something I can delve into later if anyone has interest), but it’s interesting to see the different levels of success sustaining themselves for such a long while. Here’s Hellickson:

Pretty, pretty, prettay bad and it just kept getting worse as the year wore on. While many are right to point out that Hellickson’s down year has a lot to do with his use of the slide-step with guys on base, it’s important to also realize just how ineffective his breaking ball was all year. Towards the end of the season there wasn’t even a point in throwing the pitch as he had completely lost the feel either bouncing it three feet in front of the plate or watching it get whacked. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a guy with elbow discomfort wasn’t able to throw the breaking ball well so hopefully this clean up procedure and the associated rehab allow him to find this pitch, again. Otherwise he’s in for more of the same. Let’s get back to a success story by looking at the change up:

Check out that gap between swings and strikes. Cobb gets guys so hyper aggressive that it should be no shock to see those very good run values. The beginning of the season saw his least success, but that was short-lived as he quickly started putting the pitch to work. We see a gradual decrease in effectiveness, but the pitch was still (much) better than average and it makes sense that we would see some regression from that fabulous nadir. Here’s Jeremy:

Throughout the season this was a really good pitch, though he closed out the year seeing less success, which again, could be tied to the elbow issue or possible tiredness. When it’s going well he’s inducing a ton of swings, though we see he can’t live outside the zone quite as well as Cobb can. That middle stretch is really, really good and shows the potential that Hellickson has to be a borderline top of the rotation guy when everything is going well. Lastly, let’s zoom over to the fastball:

After strong initial success Cobb ran into a patch of trouble that lasted for quite a while before figuring out what he needed to do. It appears that he was able to put the batter’s aggressiveness to good use as some of the higher swing rates correlate with some of the best results. He closed out the year throwing less pitches in the zone which is also something we saw against lefties. If that’s a conscious change then it will be interesting to track early on, though some folks tend to think that as pitchers throw fewer and fewer pitches in the zone it could be a precursor to injury. Heaven forbid the latter. Helly’s heater is up next and last:

Hellickson alternated good and bad over the first two-thirds of the season before seeing some of his worst success to close out the year. He seemed to right the ship down the stretch, but this is inline with what we’re seeing above where an ok to good pitcher starts unraveling. Again, this lack of success could be for a lot of reasons, but the elbow injury that currently has him shelved makes for an easy scapegoat. Occam’s Razor and all that jazz.

Both of these righties rely on arsenals that the trickster in all of us can appreciate. These bulldogs don’t light up the radar gun, but they’ve still been able to find varying levels of success and I see no reason why Cobb can’t come out and continue to amaze. Hellickson’s elbow surgery could go a long way in getting him back to the young stud we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing take the mound every fifth day, but if his woes go deeper than the injury then there are some cautionary lessons to take away here. I hope he’s not just the next in line to blame Scott Boras for personal greed at the expense of a player’s long-term financial future.


About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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