I wrote an article a few days ago about NL teams gaining an advantage by shortening their rotations for a playoff push. Bumping out a sub-par fifth starter to give an ace an extra start can make all the difference in a tight playoff race. While the Tampa Rays should have no problems making the playoffs, the bottom of their pitching rotation is nothing special, and there is a better option. His name is Jeremy Hellickson, and he needs to be moved from late-game duty to starting duty ASAP.
Jeff Niemann, the Rays fifth starter for much of the year, is a mediocre pitcher. In 63 major league appearance (59 starts), he has recorded 6.55 K/9 versus 3.17 BB/9 for a league-average 2.1 K/BB. His 4.43 xFIP matches his 4.48 ERA, and screams mediocrity. The Rays’ fourth starter, Wade Davis, has a similar story: 32 starts, 6.68 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 2.0 K/BB, with a 4.83 xFIP and 4.19 ERA. These are great guys to have at the end of a rotation during the season. Their combined salaries sum to a paltry $1.4 million, and they keep the Rays in games. But playoff time is a different beast; after a marathon 162-game season, a few 7-game sprints decide the next “world” champion.
Jeremy Hellickson dominated the minor leagues, striking more than a batter per inning, and walking very few (9.8 K/9 vs. 2.1 BB/9). His starts in the majors this season suggest that he can continue his dominance at this level. In 26.1 innings, over 4 starts, he recorded 25 strike outs and just 4 walks. Hitters whiff 26% of the time off Hellickson, compared to 21% for teammate David Price, a Cy Young candidate this season. When the playoffs come, you can bet Price, James Shields and Matt Garza will get 6 starts between them if the division series goes 7 games. The 7th start in there (likely the 4th game of the series) should go to Hellickson.