When Kevin Towers was “removed” in September, I doubt many people thought the D-backs would make the first significant trade of the offseason. I know I didn’t — but that’s arguably what new GM Dave Stewart and the front-office-by-committee pulled off on Friday night, trading #7 prospect Andrew Velazquez and #8 prospect Justin Williams for Jeremy Hellickson.

Jeff wrote up his take on the Hellickson trade already, and I pretty much agree across the board. Losing Williams hurts a bit because there aren’t players like him behind him, but this was a reasonable way to use the shortstop traffic jam in the organization, and Hellickson has had success in the past. The point is that the D-backs weren’t going to part with Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley or Aaron Blair in a trade for a pitcher, at least not early in this offseason, because the FO-by-committee is signaling a real changing of the guard. A team doesn’t get a Mat Latos or a Jeff Samardzija with prospects like Williams and Velazquez, at least not lately.

Two years of Hellickson is fair value for the two players the D-backs gave up in my book, especially with the high bust potential of low-minors prospects. I don’t think that’s really the question. The question is whether the trade should have been made, even at fair value.

Hellickson has a weird place in sabermetricians’ hearts, I think. In his first full season in 2011, “Hell Boy” had a 2.95 ERA despite a 4.44 FIP. That’s an obscene discrepancy; by way of context, in 2014 there was only one pitcher that had an ERA differential greater than 1 (and that was nearly 1.5). In other words, 2011 was an obscene outlier, and we started to wonder if he had some kind of contact-management skill we couldn’t see (easily). Then 2012 happened, and Hellickson did it again: a 3.10 ERA despite a 4.60 FIP.

The first time, we knew we were looking at an outlier, and we thought maybe, someone was going to do it, and Helly just happened to be the guy. But to do it a second time? It seemed like something was there. It was a puzzle, because other pitchers with sustainably-low batting average on balls in play tend to be extreme ground ball pitchers (like Brad Ziegler) or extreme fly ball pitchers (like Matt Cain). Hellickson’s batted ball data don’t look like that, so if he really had a BABIP-reducing skill, it seems like it would have had to have been horizontal instead of vertical. And that’s a lot harder to identify without HITf/x (which I hope the D-backs have consulted).

If that’s what Hellickson’s stats still looked like, seeing him pitch with the D-backs would have been completely fascinating. Like a collision of an Unstoppable Force and an Immovable Object, Hellickson’s FIP-defying tendencies would have gone up against Chase Field’s “death to pitchers” atmosphere — and something would give.

But that’s not who Hellickson is, it appears. In 2013, his ERA was unusually worse than FIP: 5.17 to 4.22. In an injury-plagued 2014, Hellickson pitched to a 4.52 ERA in 63.2 innings, but with the finest FIP he’d had since his rookie year. Go figure.

If this is a move that leads the D-backs to not make a different move, or if the D-backs trade for another starter with different prospects, I’m not a fan. I think it was reasonable. But I think there’s a high chance that we’ll be looking at a fly ball version of Trevor Cahill in the not-too-distant. I hope that if that happens, the D-backs can get something of value if they flip him again. That’s what “flipping” means, right? Buy something, tarnish it, then sell it again?

It’s the sixth trade with the Rays in franchise history, but the second in less than a year. It’s two new GMs, as well (technically, anyway), so this one seemed improbable from the get go. Last week, I didn’t really give the rumor the time of day. But I like the idea of Hellickson even if I’m doubtful on the move, and I’ll be rooting as hard as anybody.

Rays fan and Baseball Prospectus juggernaut R.J. Anderson gave us a preview of Hellickson on Twitter. Too succinct for me to not include here:

R.J. is an unusual combination: he has an extremely insightful mind and a positively encyclopedic memory. That’s a killer combination in terms of making connections, and he’s an example of why we will never be replaced by computers. He wrote about the D-backs’ side of the Hellickson trade at Baseball Prospectus ($), which I recommend highly.

By the way: Matt Swartz has projected Hellickson at a $3.9M salary for this second go-round in arbitration, a raise but a small one from his $3.625M salary in 2014. That does matter. Considering the team is supposedly planning to tender Cliff Pennington a contract, we’re looking at a payroll in the $100M range now (including some league-minimums during the season) with an Opening Day mark around $97M. $90M was the target, so we’ll see what happens next. Supposedly the D-backs are still in the hunt for Kenta Maeda and others, but the org may soon find that it’s even harder to dump payroll than we all think.

In terms of what’s next, your guess is as good as mine. But keep an eye open for our Offseason Plan within the next two weeks…

The links:

  • Confirmed by the team and originally reported by Brian Costa: the D-backs have hired former-and-now-present La Russa wingman Ed Lewis to run the team’s analytics efforts. I don’t know too much about Lewis, but as we noted in Episode 5 of The Pool Shot, he’s got one invaluable thing that other candidates might not have had: La Russa’s ear. We’ve said again and again that the team should hire someone to run an analytics team, and again and again that that person should and would have the burden of persuasion when it came to effecting some change. No matter his skills, Lewis is set up to capitalize on that well. We wish him the best in his new position, and we hope that some of our questions and some of the hypotheses we test in research posts might be of some help along the way. I’m really just at a loss for more words. This was our biggest wish, and it’s been granted.
  • Nick Piecoro wrote up the Hellickson trade on Saturday, and there are some interesting notes in there. Dave Stewart considers Hellickson “to be a number two or number three starter,” and I don’t have ammunition to disagree with him; if true, that’s an upgrade over other types in the rotation who might be described as “number three or number four.” I agree that the bone chips are a good reason to doubt the veracity of his 2013 performance, although we still have to deal with the fact that his FIPs were much higher than his ERAs before that (after all, you can’t just keep the evidence you like and ignore everything else). But more than anything else, I appreciated Piecoro getting at how the D-backs have followed Hellickson with interest, presumably even before the new front-office-by-committee took command. I like this trade as a good sign that the baton was passed effectively.
  • Piecoro also wrote a particularly great piece on Wednesday last week about Tony La Russa‘s expectations for the 2015 club. Piecoro notes that “elements of the Diamondbacks’ aggressive plan of attack make sense,” given that getting an invite to the postseason tournament has proven to be a legitimate chance to take it all. We are spoiled to have a writer of Piecoro’s insight and effectiveness covering this team. Embarrassingly spoiled. Go read that piece, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
  • Want more insight on the Hellickson trade and more feedback from Dave Stewart? Check out Steve Gilbert’s great piece. Not to be a downer, but there’s some legitimate cause for alarm in there. Dave Stewart says he traded Velazquez (and Williams) not because of the shortstop traffic jam, but because the prospects are so far away from the majors. We can’t value all low-level prospects that way. Most high-level prospects were low-level prospects first… that’s like taking out a loan that you don’t have to pay for “four or five” years, precisely because it’s four or five years down the road. No; it needs to be a good deal, on top of that. In the same category, give Jack Magruder’s piece a read, too.
  • Jim McLennan took on the Hellickson trade, and he hits the nail on the head: “It’s the front of our rotation which is need of help, not the back-end…” Couldn’t agree more, and that was my reasoning when I panned the Brandon McCarthy / Vidal Nuno trade. We lost Will Harris because Mike Bolsinger was needed for depth, supposedly. Stewart has talked about pitching depth repeatedly. Probably none of us want to see Zeke Spruill get more starts, but really, patching the beyond-the-back-end parts of the rotation is a marginal help, and it only makes sense at a marginal cost. I don’t think we think of Williams and Velazquez that way.
  • At FanGraphs (well, RotoGraphs), Jeff Zimmerman took a look at a September Hellickson start, prompted by rumors of a trade. The results were not promising. Worse, Zimmerman is as good as it gets as injury experts go in our sabermetrics world, and in his final thoughts, he suggests that Hellickson may not be fully recovered from the bone chip surgery, or that he might need a new surgery. Yikes.
  • Back in September, I looked at some of the best-performing pitcher-catcher combinations in terms of pitch framing. The bad news: Jeremy Hellickson was on the list (with Jose Molina). Why is that bad? After all, if it’s a repeatable skill that some pitchers can help their catcher get extra strikes, then that’s a skill Hellickson would be bringing to Arizona (where he will have another well-above-average pitch framer in Miguel Montero… possibly). What it means, though, is that in terms of framing, Hellickson’s poor 2014 statistics already reflect something close to the best possible effects of pitch framing. With an average framer behind the plate, he might have done worse. (Side note: I searched Beyond the Box Score for Hellickson, and apparently I’ve written three of the last four posts to reference him. I guess I like him?).
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