Ryan Helsley should be given a chance to contribute to the Cardinals starting rotation in 2020.
I am not a huge fan of giving out rotation spots based on the results of one month’s worth of spring training games, but we should at least give Helsley some recognition — and future consideration. There will likely be one open spot in the rotation next year after the re-signing of Adam Wainwright, and spot starts will be available throughout the season as well. Even though there are multiple options to plug into the rotation (Daniel Ponce de Leon, Genesis Cabrera, Austin Gomber, Jake Woodford, Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez) Helsley has demonstrated that he can succeed in the big leagues and has nasty stuff as well.
Helsley was a very effective reliever in his rookie season with the Cardinals, as he posted a solid 2.95 ERA in 36 2⁄3 innings in the regular season before turning in five scoreless frames in the postseason. Helsley’s FIP (4.22) and xFIP (5.11) are not nearly as impressive, but this is likely due to the fact that the right-hander tallied his lowest K/9 at any level since 2015 - the year of his debut professional season. Helsley is likely to see an increase in the 7.85 K/9 that he posted this season, considering his electric fastball.
Clearly, Helsley would need to strengthen his arm in the offseason so that it can last for weekly starting assignments. This might be a risky endeavor since Helsley was kept out of action for nearly two months last year with shoulder fatigue. However, Helsley appears to have moved past this issue as his fastball averaged nearly 98 MPH this season; he also showed good durability in 2015, 2016, and 2017, when he started in the Minors. Obviously a shoulder injury is never a good thing for a pitcher, but it does not appear that it was anything other than an isolated incident for Helsley.
The main thing working against Helsley in his case to enter the rotation is his pitch arsenal. Last season he primarily threw a fastball-cutter combo, supplemented with a curveball that he threw just eight percent of the time and a changeup that accounted for less than three percent of his total pitches. This is likely not an arsenal that would allow him to have success as a starter. Nonetheless, Helsley’s success as a starter in the Minors suggests that he has a more advanced arsenal than he showed this season. Most scouting reports claim that Helsley has a 45-grade changeup which he can throw for strikes. Even though he did not throw that pitch much this year, it could make more of an appearance next season if Helsley moves to a rotation role and would likely play up due to the velocity of his fastball.
Overall, the pitches that Helsley did throw this year were dominant — or at least showed the potential for dominance. Helsley threw his four-seam fastball 56.8 percent of the time, and he did not have much success with it, as opposing hitters batted .317 against it with a .378 wOBA. This does not tell the whole story. The 25-year-old has an elite combination of velocity and spin rate on his fastball. Helsley’s average velocity of 97.8 MPH was topped by just four other pitchers who threw more than 300 four seamers (Tayron Guerrero, Felipe Vasquez, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Estevez). Helsley’s average spin rate of 2510 RPM on the pitch also placed 17th among pitchers to throw at least 300 fastballs. Of the four players with a higher average velocity, only Vasquez had a better spin rate. This means that even though Helsley did not experience much success with his fastball this season, he is likely to have good fortunes with it in the future. The elite spin rate of Helsley’s fastball means that it has a greater rising effect than most fastballs and would likely be very successful when thrown at the top of the strike zone or above.
Another reason that his fastball was likely less effective than it should have been was his seemingly lack of interest in changing speeds. Only 10.5 percent of Helsley’s pitches were not fastballs. This means that opposing hitters were able to gear up for his elite velocity, and they were not leaving themselves prone to being fooled by an off-speed pitch. Nonetheless, when Helsley did throw his curveball or changeup, he experienced positive results.
Helsley did not allow a single hit on a curveball this season and generated a whiff rate of 35 percent with the pitch. This is clearly a small sample, as he threw just 50 curves, and hitters were likely not prepared for the breaker since he seldom used it; so, it would make sense that he had such strong results. Furthermore, Helsley has a solid 2421 RPM on his curveball and showed an ability to throw it for strikes. It is hard to make a definitive claim about the quality of the pitch, but it appears to be a solid secondary offering. This will become more clear if he moves to the rotation next season because then he will almost certainly throw his secondary offerings at an increased rate in order to improve his deception.
Whatever happens next season, Helsley would stand to benefit from establishing either his changeup or curveball as his go-to change-of-speed pitch to keep hitters off balance. However, Helsly did experience a good amount of success with his cutter, which he threw 31.7 percent of the time. Helsley allowed just a .163 batting average and .234 wOBA against the pitch and generated a whiff rate of 30.1 percent. Like all of his pitches, Helsley has an above-average spin rate of 2476 RPM on his cutter, a pitch that generated an extra two inches above average of horizontal and vertical movement.
Helsley also improved his overall control this season. Helsley walked just 2.95 hitters per nine innings, a rate that is much lower than it was in the Minors. If he can keep this control, then Helsley should be able to go deep into games. However, this might prove to be more challenging once he starts to fully unleash his slower pitches. Despite this, there is reason for optimism. Helsley proved to be a solid starter in the Minors and was likely moved to the bullpen this season in an effort to get him to the Majors faster; this move also helped in limiting his workload after his 2018 bout with arm soreness.
If one of either his curveball or changeup can become a viable tertiary option for Helsley, this would mean wonders in his case to be a successful starting pitcher. (His curveball appears to be the more promising option of the two — he simply needs to throw it more.) This would increase his ability to get hitters off balance and keep them guessing, and this would allow him to pitch six innings at a time instead of just one or two. Based on his success this season, he should get the chance to do this.
Helsley appears to have the stuff required to be a starter. Now he just needs his shot.