It is no secret that Ryan Helsley has struggled this season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Even though he is Mike Shildt’s preferred bullpen option outside of the big three of Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, and Genesis Cabrera, that is more by necessity as the rest of the Cardinals bullpen has struggled. On the season, Helsley has a 6.45 ERA, although his 3.67 FIP is much better. Part of the reason for his struggles is that hitters have been able to hit the ball hard when he is pitching. In fact, Helsley is in just the sixth percentile in exit velocity (92.1 mph) and the third percentile in hard hit rate (50.8%). Obviously it is difficult for a pitcher to be successful if he is giving up lots of hard contact, so this is clearly something that the 26-year-old will need to improve if he wants to become a reliable reliever for a team that badly needs one.
There are plenty of encouraging signs in Helsley’s profile that suggest he could improve his results on contact. To begin with, Helsley’s fastball averages 97.2 mph. His heater is also in the 88th percentile in spin rate (2528 rpm). This is a solid combination which suggests that Helsley could have a strong fastball. However, that is not the case as Helsley has allowed a .327 wOBA against the pitch, as well as a .369 xwOBA. Additionally, he has generated a disappointing 15.8% whiff rate. For a pitcher with a fastball like Helsley’s, he should be getting much better results with the pitch.
It appears that part of the problem is where Helsley locates his fastball. For a pitcher with solid velocity and a near-elite fastball spin rate, Helsley should be throwing his fastball up in the zone. This is where he would generate swings-and-misses due to the rising effect of his fastball. Instead, though, the right-hander is throwing his fastball down in the zone.
As seen in the above image, Helsley throws significantly more fastballs near the bottom of the strike zone than he does near the top of the strike zone. This is not ideal because the rising effect of a fastball is not as powerful on pitches down in the zone. Rather, it is much stronger on pitches that are near the top of the strike zone and are closer to the hitter’s eyes. Helsley’s fastball get 1.1 inch less drop than the average fastball which is 9% less than the average pitcher. This means that Helsley’s fastball does appear to rise more than the average pitcher’s fastball, even if it is only 9% more. This is still enough to give Helsley the potential for much better results with his fastball.
White Sox reliever Liam Hendricks is a pitcher with a similar fastball to Helsley’s. Hendriks averages 97.1 mph on his fastball, which is just .1 mph slower than Helsley. The 32-year-old also averages a spin rate of 2423 rpm, which is over 100 rpm lower than Helsley.Hendriks does create more “rise” on his fastball as it drops 2.3 inches less than the average fastball. This is similar, but better, than the rising effect that Helsley creates on his fastball.
The difference between the two pitches is that Hendriks’ has been much more effective. The White Sox reliever has generated both a wOBA and an xwOBA of .285 against the pitch this season to go with a 31.1% whiff rate. This is much better than the results that Helsley has gotten with his fastball, and part of the reason is likely because Hendriks locates his fastball higher in the zone.
Hendriks is also throwing his fastball 72.8% of the time. This makes his whiff rate on the pitch even more impressive.
With the profile of Helsley’s fastball it makes sense for him to throw it up in the zone. Some pitchers this season, and especially ones with fastball profiles similar to Helsley’s, have had success with the high fastball this year. Hendriks is just one example of this. Helsley could benefit by following a similar path and taking his high velocity and high spin rate fastball into the top of the strike zone. This would likely generate more whiffs and better results. Such a change could help him become a more reliable reliever capable of earning a high leverage role in the Cardinals’ bullpen.