Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson's dominance when pitching from the stretch is a major reason why he has a posted a 3.04 in 402 1/3 big league innings.
Success with runners on base is really the only way to explain how Hellickson has consistently outperformed his sabermetric stats.
Last season, Hellickson had the largest difference between his ERA and fielding independent pitching (FIP) in all of baseball with a -1.50 (3.10 ERA, 4.60 FIP). This has been a two-year trend for the 25-year-old. He had a 2.95 ERA and 4.44 FIP in 2011.
FIP measures only the factors that a pitcher can control -- walks, strikeouts, homers and hit batters -- and Hellickson just doesn't measure up.
The righty walked 3.0 batters per nine, struck out 6.31 per nine and allowed 1.27 home runs per nine last season. He had similar rates in 2011 -- 3.43, 5.57, 1.00.
But Hellickson ranks as the best pitcher in baseball with runners on. He finished first in the majors with a strand rate of 82.7 percent last season and was second in 2011 (82 percent).
In 2012, he held opposing hitters to a .223 average with men on base and a .226 average with runners in scoring position (RISP). All but five of his 25 homers allowed were solo shots, and four of those five were two-run shots.
The average strand rate in the majors is around 70-72 percent, depending on the season, but Hellickson has been outperforming that for years.
Even in the minors, Hellickson displayed the ability to get out of tough situations. He had a 79.7 percent strand rate in Triple-A in 2010 after putting up a strand rate close to 81 percent in 132 Double-A innings.
He has certainly benefited from some extreme luck on balls in play, posting a .223 BABIP in 2011 and a .261 BABIP last season, but that doesn't mean he's a lock to regress in 2013.
The Rays once again will sport one of the American League's top defenses, especially if they get a healthy season out of third baseman Evan Longoria.
Tampa Bay acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar (2012 UZR: 4.6) and first baseman James Loney (2012 UZR: 8.1) as well as second baseman Kelly Johnson this offseason.
Johnson has been up-and-down defensively in his career and he posted a -6.9 UZR last season, but he had a 7.1 UZR in 2010 and a 2.5 UZR in 2011. Plus, he allows Tampa Bay to move Ben Zobrist back to right field, his strongest defensive position. Zobrist has a career UZR of 34.3 in right field.
As we know, a good defense can influence BABIP by converting more balls into outs than an average defense.
With top-notch defensive support and a continued ability to strand runners, Hellickson should be able to produce another sabermetrics-defying ERA in 2013.