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Is Wes Helms Really This Bad?

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The Phillies are on record, whether they're being honest or not, that incumbent third basemen Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms will be manning the hot corner again in 2008 despite their league-worst production at the position. Far as I can tell, nobody in Phillies blog-land is happy about this; for what it's worth, given the cloak and dagger doings around the Lidge acquisition and the current confusion (or maybe "strategic ambiguity" is a better term) over whether the team is in on Mike Lowell, I think it's more likely than not that someone else will be in the mix, if not the outright starter, at third base in 2008.

But even if it is Dobbs and Helms, I think there's a decent chance we'll get considerably more hitting out of the position next year than we did this past year. My grounds for optimism have little to do with Dobbs, whom I think pretty much showed the absolute ceiling of his abilities in 2007 (and who, at any rate, hit far worse as a third baseman than in any other role). Rather, I suspect that Helms will bounce back.

In part this is my own credibility at stake: I was hot for the Phils to get Helms a year ago, and thought he'd be pretty good. Obviously, he wasn't. But there are some grounds to believe that everything that could have gone wrong for the journeyman corner infielder did so in '07, and that at the least he's due for what Joe Sheehan sometimes calls a "dead cat bounce."

First things first: Helms was bad almost across the board in 2007. He disappointed early (.267/.327/.382 first half) and he flat-out stunk late (.202/.232/.337 post-break). He was Nunez-esque against righties (.221/.261/.313 in 165 at-bats) and, shockingly, at home (.197/.225/.295 in 132 at-bats). His OPS+ was 68; a year earlier it had been 149. The only areas in which Helms was even close to adequate was hitting left-handers (.282/.346/.444 in 117 AB) and his road production (.291/.357/.432 in 148 AB).

When the Phillies signed Nunez two years ago, we all hated it because there was nothing in his track record to suggest he could hit--and, of course, he didn't. The perplexing thing about Helms's 2007 is that there's nothing in his track record to suggest he could be as bad as he was last year. Even including his wretched '07 season, Helms has a career line of .257/.309/.416 against right-handed pitchers--not great, but not atrocious. In 22 at-bats at OFJOAB before 2007, he'd recorded nine hits, including two homers and four doubles. (He had three homers and four doubles in those 132 at-bats for the home fans this past season.) Finally, over the course of his career, Helms has been a much better second-half hitter; this year was, of course, the opposite.

Other metrics tell a complicated story, offering evidence that Helms was unlucky--though not so unlucky as to explain the awful performance numbers. Look at Helms's Batting Average on Balls In Play. During his tremendous 2006 season, he hit in tremendous fortune with a BABIP of .383; this past year it dipped to .295, which is a bit low but not terribly unlucky. That gives me some pause. Similarly, Helms' line-drive rate dipped from a very good 26.3 percent in '06 to a more pedestrian (but not awful) 20.3 percent in 2007. Even more baffling is the fact that Helms's walk rate fell (8.0 percent to 6.6 percent) despite his pitches seen per plate appearance rising from 3.6 in 2006 to 4.0 last year.

Nobody expected Helms to be as good for the Phillies as he'd been for the Marlins in 2006; if they had, he would have gotten a much more generous contract than two years, $5 million. But given the reported changes in his hitting approach with experience, and the fact that he was moving to a generally much more offense-friendly home park, it was shocking to see him perform as badly as he did. Age can't explain it either, as Helms turned 31 in May; some decline might be expected, but this was a plunge over the cliff.

The 2008 ZIPS projections peg Helms for .265/.324/.420 next season, with 6 home runs in 226 at-bats. Bill James (.270/.334/.430) and TGP contributor MattS (.268/.323/.431) are in the same range. That seems like a fairly decent guess. As Dennis Green might say, I think it's still likely that in the end, Helms will prove to be who we thought he was--a non-star who's nonetheless good enough to help the Phillies win some games.