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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Todd Helton Not Joining Alternate Evil Empire    

The Todd Helton trade talks, tenuous as they were from the start, are officially off.  The Red Sox appear to have been interested only to the extent that the Rockies were offering Helton at cut-rate prices; once they established that this wasn't a salary dump, and that Colorado would insist on a top prospect, there wasn't really anything in it for them.  Pretty wise, considering how thin the Sox are in terms of bullpen talent.

I could go either way on it.  Helton at his best is not only one of the most productive hitters of the last decade but also is exactly the kind of player the Sox are after... a patient and versatile bat to go along with three Gold Gloves.  If he does return to the top of the OPS charts, the Sox will look awfully silly for wanting to hold onto a reliever like Craig Hansen or Manny Delcarmen instead of going after a guy who would make the Yankees' vaunted lineup look like a bunch of hobos.

The above, though, is the best case.  The worst case (and likeliest, based on the trade talks happening at all) is that Helton's legitimately on the downswing, leaving him as a merely competent hitter... good in the field, 15-20 HR power.  In other words, he's a left-handed Mike Lowell, who we already have for half the price.  Why throw Tavarez and either Hansen or Delcarmen down a hole if you're not going to improve that much?  In fact, if they are indeed comparable within a reasonable margin, I'd almost prefer Lowell's right-handedness to Helton.

Another thing to remember is that first base is such an odd position for the Red Sox.  David Ortiz plays in the field at National League parks, forcing the Sox' regular 1B to the bench.  That means any Helton trade would not improve that lineup at all for any interleague or World Series games on the road.  Of course he'd help win a shitload of games in the interim, but it's not nearly as prudent for the Sox to improve a disappearing lineup slot as it would be to, say, upgrade in CF or at 3B.  Paying market value for Helton, in terms of talent sacrificed, thus becomes an inefficiency.  It would be an insignificant point if there weren't so many other negatives lined up alongside it.

Anyway, much ado about nothing, and just as well.  I'm fine with a non-move.  With the Pats, Celtics and Bruins either inactive or irrelevant, Boston fans are dying for news, substantial or otherwise.  And it was fun while it lasted.

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5 Comments:

  • I think it's a very good thing you didn't make this deal. Helton would have been a big boost this year (he's still an excellent hitter, if not as powerful as he was), and probably next year as well. And then you would have had 4 years of a sub-par first baseman at $16 mil per. The Red Sox can cover that better than most people, but yuck. It's just a major financial commitment that you don't want any of.

    By Blogger Jesse, at 11:29 AM  

  • I wouldn't say it's that bad.

    1) I could give a shit about the money. $19 million is the new $11 million. The owners obviously won't throw money out the window, but I think adding Helton's talent would be worth ignoring the numbers. (I don't feel that way about J.D. Drew, as has been discussed elsewhere. But that's over with now.)

    2) The Sox would basically give up a guy who wouldn't be back in 2008 anyway (Lowell), a guy who may very well not make the team in 2007 (Tavarez), and a blue-chip prospect. In terms of actual value to the Red Sox, we're talking "pitching prospect for Helton." That's not a bad gamble. It's bad in that the Sox aren't exactly stacked with pitchers beyond 2007. But if their intelligence says Helton is due for a bounce-back, then what's the big deal?

    I'll rephrase my position from the post: if he doesn't work out, you lose a prospect for no reason, which is pretty bad, but if he regains any of his power and continues to exhibit plate discipline then it's a steal.

    However, I also think that deciding to hold onto their young pitchers is an entirely valid position. It's not a "you IDIOTS!" type thing if Helton ends up an MVP candidate again. I just think it's not the worst idea in the world to trade for the guy.

    Don't forget that Fenway could help his opposite-field power a great deal... though I'm not familiar with his spray charts, so I admit ignorance there. I'd be awfully surprised if he hit .357 as a dead pull hitter though.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 12:58 PM  

  • OK, but look at his 3 year trend:

    Year OBP SLG
    2004 .469 .620
    2005 .445 .534
    2006 .404 .476

    I mean, the guy is already 33. From a first glance, it looks like he's seriously in his decline phase already. I think you have a decent chance of 4-5 years of worse-than-Richie-Sexson performance for more-than-Richie-Sexson dollars. You hated the Sexson contract, remember? I think it would be very, very risky to pick up Helton's whole deal right now. I think he'll probably be better next year than last year, but I would be pretty surprised by anything resembling a real resurgence. That means he could still be a good hitter for 3-4 years, which might make it worth it, but I think you're very likely to pay a lot for very little, ultimately.

    Now, there are some things that complicate the picture a little bit. Take a look at this for example:

    Year HR/FB
    2004 13.2%
    2005 9.5%
    2006 6.8%

    But it's fascinating. Ryan Howard's HR/FB% this year? 38.3%! And you could never ever guess who the runner up is (though you could easily look it up real fast). Jacque Jones? So weird. Anyway, I don't know how much randomness goes into those numbers, but I'm guessing it's a lot, and Helton is more a doubles hitter anyway, so it doesn't really matter that much. The 6.8% thing will bounce back (only 18 regulars in the majors had a lower %), and is almost certainly related at least partially to Coors becoming a pitchers park this year because of the humidor. And he's clearly capable of great seasons with a low HR/FB%. Buuuutttt...

    How much have his numbers been pumped up by Coors? It looks like a lot. Check out his career AVG/OBP/SLG:

    Home: .371/.465/.676
    Away: .294/.393/.507

    So, you'd think that this year was probably his Coors numbers falling back to earth and representing more of his "true" ability, right? Well, not really. Check the splits this year:

    Home: .338/.445/.531
    Away: .266/.360/.421

    He walks a lot, but his slugging is driven almost entirely by batting average, which is scary (but so is Ichiro's, so you won't hear me saying it's necessarily bad). And it appears, like a lot of people, he hits better at home than on the road, despite the fact that Coors is now supposedly a pitcher's park. And if the analysis of what has happened to the Coors park effects is correct, then it's possible hitting at Fenway would be better for him. So, I think what we're seeing in 2006 is:

    1) A bad year for him,
    2) Evidence of his decline, and
    3) His Coors numbers coming back to earth.

    His eye is intact, and he's due to bounce back a bit. And we'll assume Fenway is a better park for him than Coors, with the recent changes to Coors. But his numbers were very inflated by playing there.

    I'm in way over my head at this point, but I'll just throw out a 2007 projection for him:

    .315/.420/.510 (.930 OPS) w/ 19 HR.

    That's a good year, but I think you have to expect a continued decline after that (it's not guaranteed by any means, but it would be foolish to expect anything different, in my opinion). So in 2008 you get a hitter more like this year, probably, and in 2009, probably worse than this year. For reference, Youkilis this year:

    .279/.381/.429

    I think you could end up with that pretty soon with Helton. He's good, but not great, and getting worse. I wouldn't want to pay him that money, even as the Red Sox, though it's possible that the championship he could help deliver in the next 2 years would be worth the pain later. I'm not confident that it would be, though.

    By Blogger Jesse, at 3:01 PM  

  • I can't argue much with that. I'll add that the history of players leaving Coors and producing elsewhere is not good at all. Preston Wilson, Jay Payton and Vinny Castilla all saw their numbers not just diminish but vanish. Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette spent their final seasons absolutely sucking. They aren't exactly fair examples (no one has ever grown up at Coors and left with his prime ahead of him) but the bottom line is that nobody has ever seen their numbers increase post-Coors. That's scary.

    But I do have a couple minor quibbles:

    1) The Sexson contract is horrible because of the player.

    Richie Sexson got his numbers by being a physical freak and a big dumb masher. Helton at his best has a Cooperstown argument.

    Sexson has never been, and never will be, the player Helton was in any of Helton's five best seasons. That fact is blatantly obvious, and the M's didn't care. That's the problem with the Sexson contract. Sometimes you do have to think about where the numbers came from and how they happened, and not just say "ooooh 48 home runs" and throw your money down a big wet hole. Bavasi's usually a pretty sharp guy, but he screwed the pooch on this one.

    2) The proper point of reference is Lowell, not Youkilis, since Lowell's the one who would be replaced. (Youk heads back to 3rd, his "natural" position, in the event of a trade.) Besides, Youk suffered a MAJOR slip in production once pitchers figured him out, so I'm not entirely sure even the OK numbers you provide are repeatable by Youkilis. Anyway, Lowell's numbers:

    .284/.339/.475 (20 HR, 80 RBI)

    So, um, yeah. Huge difference.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 5:40 PM  

  • Yeah I basically agree, but I do think you're underselling Sexson a bit at his best, if you take park effects into account. I'm realizing I don't really know how to do that, because what I came up with when I tried is totally screwed up. Check it:

    My effort to use retrosheet's park factors to adjust 2005 Sexson from his 279 AB in SafeCo to 279 AB in Coors, using average factors from 2003-2005, came up with the following player:

    .317/.446/.656

    We all know Sexson wouldn't do that in Coors though, not even in 2000 at the height of the insanity. The problems are obvious...park factors just don't effect everything the same way, you'd have to adjust for GBs, FBs, BBs, SOs all seperately, and I can't find the data for that (nor do I want to use the time to do so). But if Retrosheet is considered one of the more reliable sources (and I think it is, though I'm not sure), then the park factors in question are pretty sizeable. The average Park Factor from 03-05 for SafeCo was .918, and for the same years in Coors it was 1.31. The fact that Helton on the road, so much worse than at home, is still so much better on the road Sexson, only slightly better than at home, probably makes the calculations I did do pretty much useless. But it's good to remember that Seattle is a pretty extreme pitchers park, especially for RH power hitters. Sexson's 2005 was a very good season, though it doesn't approach Helton at all, you're right, no matter how much park adjusting you do.

    But that's not really the issue. I Still think there's a decent chance that the last 4 years of Helton's contract he performs worse than Sexson in Sexson's 4 year contract (remember that Helton is a year and a half older). I don't know, I lost my point. I guess it's that I don't want Sexson and neither do you. And that's what Helton may soon be.

    By Blogger Jesse, at 3:29 PM  

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