PORT CHARLOTTE — Lucky would be winning the lottery. Meeting an engaging super-model in the supermarket checkout line. Having an off day on the road line up with an offer to play Pebble Beach.
But winning 13 games, as a rookie, for a team playing in the American League East?
"Yea, I just got lucky on the mound," Jeremy Hellickson says dryly. "A lot of lucky outs."
Amid the statistical autopsies of Hellickson's impressive accomplishments last season — a 13-10 record and 2.95 ERA that resulted in the AL rookie of the year award — a story line has emerged that the right-hander's success wasn't all his own doing.
The premise is based on a sabermetric calculation, called BABIP, which stands for batting average on balls in play, something essentially out of the pitcher's control. The theory is that since Hellickson had such a low number — a major-league best .223, nearly 70 points below the league norm — he was more lucky than good.
"I hear it; it's funny," Hellickson said, not quite sure of the acronym. "I thought that's what we're supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don't really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I'm not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play."
Manager Joe Maddon allows that there was some luck involved in Hellickson's success — in his BABIP; as well as his ERA, lowest by an AL rookie in 21 years; and his .210 opponents' average, third best in the majors. And that there would have to be more for him to do so — or get close — again.
"Is he possibly able to do that? Yes," Maddon said. "Is he going to do it? I don't know."
But it is Hellickson's pitching — specifically his style of pitching, combining a well-located fastball with a dynamic changeup — that is the key, Maddon said, often resulting in weak contact, specifically a high number of infield popups.
"He's a fly-ball pitcher, but he's one of those anomaly guys that gets the popup on the infield,' Maddon said. "If you look into those guys, they are pretty successful. The fastball-changeup combination probably induces the popup."
(Indeed. Of Hellickson's fly balls, 22 percent were on the infield, well above the MLB average of 13 percent, per baseball-reference.com.)
Hellickson, 24, isn't too wrapped up in the specifics, nor the suggestion that he is going to have things tougher in his second full season.
He knows hitters will make adjustments based on what he did last season, and that he will have to adjust as well, specifically improving against left-handed hitters.
This spring, for example, he continues to work on implementing a cutter into his repertoire, throwing about 10 in Wednesday's four-inning outing against the Marlins.
"I can either handle my business or I don't," he said.
And that translates to the statistic that Hellickson feels matters the most.
"Wins are by far the most important stat," he said. "You have a terrible day out there but as long as you win, you're fine."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]