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Feature
 
 
Was Wes Helms' 2003 Season A Fluke?

Batterman
on 08/02/2004

 

When the Brewers signed Wes Helms to a two-year contract extension this past off-season, they thought they were getting a power-hitting third-baseman who could hit 20-30 home runs a season. Acquired on the advice of Ned Yost from the Braves during the first Winter Meeting of Doug Melvin's tenure in Milwaukee, Helms had been blocked in Atlanta by Chipper Jones and had struggled in limited opportunities as a part-time player at first-base, third-base, and the outfield. Yost was convinced, however, that a full-time role would allow Helms to flourish, and that appeared to be the case in 2003 when the man affectionately known as "Caveman" hit 23 homers and produced a solid OPS of 780.

In signing him to an extension, however, the Brewers were betting that the Helms of 2003 was for real and that the beefy third-baseman could even improve on his breakthrough performance. But was that a sound bet? Should Helms' history, both recent and not, have justified this confidence? Were his struggles in 2004 predictable? Or more to the point, should the Brewers have resigned Helms with the expectation that he would continue to produce at an above-average level for a third-baseman?

This article offers no firm conclusions. Rather, it attempts to place Helms' 2003 season into context with an eye toward identifying possible trends that would impact the aforementioned questions. The first step is to outline Helms' career path from the very beginning, with particular emphasis placed on his progress as a hitter. Next, some key statistics are analyzed to help track Helms' development in both plate discipline and power. Finally, his 2003 season can be assessed and some hypotheses can be offered to explain his breakout success.

From Tenth-Rounder To Top Prospect

Helms was drafted by Atlanta in the tenth round of the 1994 draft out of Ashbrook High School in Gastonia, North Carolina, where he was the state's player of the year. It was a regrettable draft class for the Braves, who invested their top selection in prep right-hander Jacob Shumate, a South Carolina product that never made it to the big leagues. In fact, Helms is the only member of the 1994 Atlanta draft to have success in the majors. Second-rounder George Lombard, an outfielder, played in the show for parts of five seasons and is currently hitting well at Triple-A Pawtucket for the Red Sox. Seventh-round pick Ron Wright appeared in one game in 2002 for the Mariners. Eighteenth-rounder Derrin Ebert pitched in five games, all in relief, as a 22-year old in 1999 but did not make it back; he pitched in the Brewers' system in 2002 and again in 2003. But that was it.

A nephew of former big-leaguer Tommy Helms, Wes was considered a pitching prospect coming out of high school, but the Braves signed him as a position player and assigned him to the hot corner. He played in 56 games with the Gulf Coast Braves after the draft and batted .266 with 4 homers, 22 walks, and 36 strikeouts in 184 at-bats. It wasn't a lights-out performance, but it was enough to earn Helms a spot on the Macon roster and he spent the entire 1995 season in the South Atlantic League. There, Helms flourished, hitting .276 with 32 doubles and 11 homers in 136 games. He walked 50 times and fanned 107, but nonetheless earned a spot on the Sally League All-Star Team, a stacked squad that included MVP Andruw Jones, then 18-years old, and future Major Leaguers Daryle Ward, Hiram Bocachica, and Vladimir Guerrero.

Helms split the 1996 season between Single-A Durham and Double-A Greenville. He hit .322 with 13 homers in 67 games for the Bulls, by far the most power he had displayed in his young career, and accumulated a mighty .562 slugging average. His walk totals continued to plummet, however, as Helms reached base via the free pass only 12 times in 258 at-bats while racking up 51 strikeouts. The excellent power numbers, though, earned Helms a spot on the Carolina League All-Star team and, along with Andruw Jones, Ron Wright, and left-hander Damian Moss, a mid-June call-up to Double-A. There, Helms struggled to a .255 average and .381 slugging average, a result of only 19 extra-base hits and four homers in 64 games. Plate discipline was still a problem, as Helms managed only 13 walks to go against 48 strikeouts.

It probably should have been back to the Southern League in 1997, but the Braves wanted to challenge Helms and he opened the season with Triple-A Richmond. Only 20-years old when the season began and in only his third season in professional baseball, Helms was overwhelmed by the International League and struggled to a .191 average and only 7 extra-base hits in 32 games with Richmond.

"You look at his ability and his tools, and you think he'll be able to make the adjustment to the league he's in," Richmond skipper Bill Dancy told Tim Pearrell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time. "You set some expectations high because he has some tools. If he tears the league up, everybody's happy. If he doesn't, I don't think anybody's down on him having to go back to Greenville."1

And that's exactly where he went, and Helms improved markedly from his poor start at Triple-A. He batted .296 with 14 doubles and 11 homers in 86 games, but more importantly, he improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio to better than 2-to-1 (33 BB and 50 K).

The rebound earned Helms another shot in Richmond for the 1998 season. The second time around was much more palatable to Helms and the Braves, as the hefty third-baseman regained his prospect status and drew comparisons to David Justice, the former-Brave who had also struggled in his first stint at Triple-A. Helms hit .275 with 27 doubles and 13 walks, but discipline was again a problem as the 22-year old fanned 103 times while drawing only 35 walks.

When Chipper Jones left a game on August 26th with what was then described as a muscle pull in his rib cage, the Braves recalled Helms and added him to the 25-man roster in place of the also-injured outfielder Danny Bautista. Jones turned out to be fine, but Helms got to stay in the big leagues nonetheless. In order to solve their roster problems, however, Helms was optioned to Eugene in the Northwest League a few days later even though their short-season schedule was finished. He didn't report, instead rejoining the Braves the next day when rosters expanded.

Helms made his MLB debut on September 14th at home against the Phillies, starting at third and batting seventh in the order. He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout but the Braves won 3-0 behind a solid start from Kevin Millwood. He got his first big league hit less than a week later in Arizona, a pinch-hit RBI single off of Vladimir Nunez, and his first homer two days after that, a solo job off of Justin Speier of the Marlins. Helms finished the season with the homer, a double, two singles, and four strikeouts in 13 at-bats.

It was a good start to his big league career, and Helms had once again positioned himself to make the Braves out of Spring Training in 1999. After experiencing pain in his throwing shoulder throughout camp, however, Helms was forced to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. The injury originally occurred on a diving play the previous season, but Helms had kept quiet and hoped to recover over the Winter. The pain came back immediately, though, and the surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews.

"One of the better prospects in baseball is going to be out the whole season," Bobby Cox said about the loss of Helms. "That's too bad because he needs to play."2

With his recovery proceeding much faster than expected, Helms started a rehabilitation assignment in the Gulf Coast League in July and was activated from the disabled list and sent to Double-A Greenville on July 18th. He played at first-base to protect his shoulder and batted .301 with six doubles and eight homers in 113 at-bats. He was lost for the season, however - for real this time - when a collision while playing first resulted in a separated left shoulder.

It was a forgettable season for Helms, who had quickly lost his shine on the Braves' top prospect list.

"Bad year," he said bluntly to Pearrell of the Richmond Times Dispatch.3

The off-season wasn't all bad, though, as Helms and girlfriend Meredith Wilson were married on December 11th at a wedding chapel in North Carolina. The two met at the HealthSouth Medical Center in Birmingham while Helms was rehabbing his shoulder surgery and topped their wedding cake with a baseball that Helms signed and gave to his new wife.

After the marriage and honeymoon, Helms spent time trying to add lift to his swing in an effort to hit more home runs.

"They've always said [I needed to show more power] - and it's true," he told Pearrell. "It's not as if I couldn't do it. I've just always hit line drives. My hardest hit balls were on a line, and they would always hit off the top of the wall or they would hit the wall. If I lift those balls, I'm hitting 30 or 40 home runs a year rather than 15 or 16."4

Now 24, Helms opened the season at Richmond with hopes of proving his rehabilitated shoulder was back to normal and his power was worthy of a big league job. He got off to a great start and was back at his familiar stomping grounds at third. He cooled off in July but bounced back in Richmond's tough hitter's park to finish the season with a .288 average, 27 doubles, and 20 homers for a slugging average of .475. He walked 27 times and struck-out 92 in 539 at-bats.

On September 5th, Helms was recalled to Atlanta along with outfielder Pedro Swann, shortstop Mark DeRosa, first-baseman Tim Unroe, and pitcher Kevin McGlinchy. He received only 5 at-bats, however, and tallied only one hit.

Getting An Opportunity In Atlanta

All was not lost, however, as the Braves finally decided to consider moving Chipper Jones from third-base to the outfield and Helms was given an opportunity to win a job as a part-time player. Out of options and about to turn 25, Helms was given the chance to make or break with the big league Braves.

"Our minor-league guys say Helms is ready," GM John Schuerholz told Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the off-season. "The time looks like it has come for him to get his opportunity. You let him know the door is wide open."5

Helms took advantage with a red-hot spring and made the team as a bench player and platoon first-baseman. He opened the season as the team's starter at first against left-handers and the primary backup for third-baseman Chipper Jones, but injuries quickly forced him into additional duties in left-field. Helms struggled and the Braves eventually signed Ken Caminiti and inserted him at first, but that experiment failed after 33 games. Helms played in 100 games and hit .222 with a 728 OPS in 216 at-bats and was included on the Braves playoff roster, but was then replaced at the last minute by catcher Javy Lopez, who had originally been expected to miss the divisional series with an ankle injury.

After another tough NLCS loss, the Braves entered the off-season with more questions than answers. One of GM John Schuerholz's targets was a first-baseman, but Helms was adamant that he deserved job.

"The only thing that's in my hands is my work ethic and what I do on the field, and I know I can outplay those guys," Helms told Bill Zack of the Chattanooga Free Press. "I'll tell Schuerholz that. I will outplay anybody he goes out and gets. All he's got to do is give me that chance. I never have had a chance to play every day, so really no one knows what I can do. I understand why they're pursuing a first baseman, but I know if I get a chance to play every day I'll do big things for the Braves."6

It didn't work out that way, though, as Helms was part of a three-man platoon at first to open the season along with ageless wonder Julio Franco and former-Brewer B.J. Surhoff.

The production part didn't work out, either. Helms got off to a good start, batting .317 with an 887 OPS over 41 at-bats in April, and earned a full-time starting job at first. He slumped to .188/604 in May, however, and .265/572 in June, and Franco picked up the bulk of his playing time. Helms rebounded in limited opportunities in July, posting a .261 average and 892 OPS, but an injury to his right thumb put him on the disabled list in early August and he missed more than a month of action.

Helms returned for the Braves last week of play and appeared in five games, batting .154 with a 385 OPS in 13 at-bats. He finished the season with a .234 batting average, .283 on-base average, .405 slugging average, and six home runs in 85 games.

The Trade To Milwaukee

The Braves resigned Helms to a one-year, $575,000 contract in December and Schuerholz indicated he would be given a shot to win a roster spot in Spring Training. That didn't happen, however, as Helms was dealt a few days later to the Brewers along with left-hander John Foster for reliever Ray King.

The move was motivated in no small part by the advice of new Brewers' manager Ned Yost, who had spent the previous twelve seasons as a coach with the Braves.

"Wes is the kind of guy who needs an opportunity," he told Drew Olson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time of the trade. "He wasn't going to get that in Atlanta, but he's going to get that in Milwaukee. The thing I like about Wes and John Foster is that they are both gamers. They like to work hard and compete. That's the kind of guy we need on our ballclub."6

Helms was "tickled to death" about the trade.

"I wanted to play, and I don't know what was holding me back," he said in a phone conversation with reporters. "I don't know if [the Braves] were afraid to play me or if they just wanted to put veterans out there."

"I'm a third baseman," he added. "I love third base. I love the hot corner. I love the diving. I love making the pressure throw to first base and just nipping the runner. I love the action at third base. I missed it when I was at first base in Atlanta."7

Helms was given the everyday third-base job out of Spring Training but got off to a terrible start, batting .221 with a 685 OPS in April before bottoming out in mid-May. Yost stuck with him, however, comparing his situation to Yost's own days as a player in Texas.

"I was a lot like Wes," the manager told Drew Olson in March. "I thought I was going to go over there and finally get an opportunity. Then I got off to a bad start, I kept pressing and I was like a brick in the ocean. The last thing I want to do is have one of my guys go through what happened to me. You can't jack them around, play them six days a week and then four days a week and then two. You have to stay positive and let them know that they are good players and you're not going to panic."8

And that he didn't, as Helms appeared in all but four games in April and all but one in May.

"That's a tough thing for a young kid to go from playing all the time in the minor leagues to playing once or twice a week," Yost reiterated to Olson. "No matter what you tell them, in the back of their mind they are thinking, 'If I don't get two hits today, I'm not going to play for a while.'"9

Helms responded well, finishing May with a .245 average and 769 OPS, and compiled two more solid months, batting .258/804 in June and .282/806 in July. He strained a hamstring and missed most of the first half of August, but again finished the month strong (.238/773) and put together his best month of the season in September, batting .310 with a .383 on-base average and 847 OPS.

Helms was eligible for arbitration in the off-season and the Brewers elected to extend him a two-year, $4.5 million contract.

"Because of the arbitration process, we felt it was important to do this," Doug Melvin explained to Olson at the time of the signing. "Wes is a good player who took advantage of his opportunity and played well at home. We think (Miller Park) is a good park for him."10

Just how good?

          AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS   HR
---------------------------------------------
Home     240   .317   .387   .558    945   16
Road     236   .203   .271   .339    610    7
---------------------------------------------

Incredibly, Helms' average was 114 points better at home and his OPS was 335 points higher, a difference of about 35 percent. It was by far the largest split among Brewers' hitters.

Helms also hit much better against left-handers than he did righties.

          AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS   HR
---------------------------------------------
Right    390   .249   .307   .421    728   17
Left      86   .314   .425   .581   1006    6
---------------------------------------------

In total, Helms batted .261 with a 780 OPS in 476 at-bats. The average NL third-baseman, by comparison, hit .256 and 731.

Fluke Or For Real?

But would Helms' success continue?

Several factors seemed to indicate otherwise.

The first, of course, was his dramatic splits. While the Brewers would again play their 81 home games at Miller Park, it seemed unlikely that Helms would again be able to take advantage of the conditions to such an extreme degree. His lefty/righty split was also troublesome, as studies (by Bill James, MGL/Baseball Primer, and others) have indicated that over time, a right-handed batter's OPS against left-handers and right-handers is consistently 1.09 to 1. In other words, a right-handed hitter, given a large enough sample size, will likely produce an OPS 1.09 times better against left-handers than he will against right-handers. A regression to the mean, then, could be reasonably expected.11

Additionally, Helms' breakthrough 2003 season still included a notable lack of plate discipline. In 476 at-bats, he walked 43 times and struck-out 131, a ratio of just over three strikeouts for every one walk. This was consistent with his previous minor league and Major League track record:

Year/Level      AB    BB    SO   AB/BB   AB/SO   SO/BB
------------------------------------------------------
1994 - R       184    22    36    8.36    5.11    1.64
1995 - A       539    50   107   10.78    5.04    2.14
1996 - A       258    12    51   21.50    5.06    4.25
1996 - AA      231    13    48   17.77    4.81    3.69
1997 - AA      314    33    50    9.52    6.28    1.52
1997 - AAA     110    10    34   11.00    3.24    3.40
1998 - AAA     451    35   103   12.89    4.38    2.94
1999 - AA      113     7    34   16.14    3.32    4.86
2000 - AAA     539    27    92   19.96    5.86    3.41
2001 - MLB     216    21    56   10.29    3.86    2.67
2002 - MLB     210    11    57   19.09    3.68    5.18
2003 - MLB     476    43   131   11.07    3.63    3.05
------------------------------------------------------
Total R/A      981    84   194   11.68    5.06    2.31
Total AA       658    53   132   12.42    4.98    2.49
Total AAA     1100    72   229   15.28    4.80    3.18
Total MLB      902    75   244   12.03    3.70    3.25
------------------------------------------------------
Total All     3641   284   799   12.82    4.56    2.81
------------------------------------------------------

Exempting his MLB callups in 1998 and 2000 and his rehabilitation assignment in the Gulf Coast League in 1999, Helms has struck-out approximately once every five at-bats but has walked only once every thirteen. Despite a declining strikeout rate, Helms is still striking-out more than three times for every one walk.

While a hitter can have success without superb plate discipline, a high at-bat-to-walk ratio and strike-out-to-walk-ratio are both indicators of future struggles, particularly when those numbers are compiled over a large sample at Triple-A. Helms was nonetheless able to overcome his shortcomings and, in fact, improve both his walk and strikeout rate in 2003.

Why? Perhaps because it was Helms' season of 27, often described as a player's mythical "peak" when they will play the best baseball of their careers. Helms seems to fit the bill of the typical "breakout" player: a long, up-and-down minor league career, lots of time spent at Triple-A, and a full-time job at the big league level for the first time.

Another factor to consider is that Helms had never before posted as many as 23 homers in a single season. His previous high was 20, the number he hit in his third stint at Triple-A in 2000, and his next-highest tally was only 13. Like others, Helms was projected to turn his high doubles totals into more home runs as he developed. That seemed to happen in 2003, perhaps aided by the friendly confines of Miller Park.

Year/Level      AB    2B    HR   AB/HR   2B/HR
----------------------------------------------
1994 - R       184    15     4   46.00    3.75
1995 - A       539    32    11   49.00    2.91
1996 - A       258    19    13   19.85    1.46
1996 - AA      231    13     4   57.75    3.25
1997 - AA      314    14    11   28.55    1.27
1997 - AAA     110     4     3   36.67    1.33
1998 - AAA     451    27    13   34.69    2.08
1999 - AA      113     6     8   14.13    0.75
2000 - AAA     539    27    20   26.95    1.35
2001 - MLB     216    10    10   21.60    1.00
2002 - MLB     210    16     6   35.00    2.67
2003 - MLB     476    21    23   20.70    0.91
----------------------------------------------
Total All     3641   204   126   17.85    1.62
----------------------------------------------

Again exempting his MLB callups and rehab assignment, Helms had a breakthrough season in 2003, posting the best home run rate of his MLB career and racking up more homers than doubles for only the second time (the other coming in his repeat of AA in 1999). While his minor league home run rate hovered around 30 at-bats per homer, Helms jacked a longball every 20 at-bats in 2003. Again, the increase could be explained at least in part by Miller Park, where Helms hit 16 of his 23 homers.

Like before, however, could this drastic change from doubles-hitter to home-run-hitter have been a fluke? Could it have been a mix of good fortune, good timing (in his peak season), and a good ballpark? Perhaps.

If Helms is able to continue his home run rate while maintaining a nearly 1:1 doubles-to-homers ratio, he will be a very valuable player. If, however, his home run rate returns to its previous level and his doubles rate remains the same, much of his value as a slugger will be lost. Even if some of his homers go for doubles, as they did throughout the rest of his career, Helms would fall closer to "average" than "above average" among NL third-basemen.

The Meltdown In 2004

So far in 2004, "fluke" has been a much more accurate answer than "for real." Helms is batting .249 with a 633 OPS in 197 at-bats and has managed only nine extra-base hits all season. His slide began right out of the gate, batting .214 with a .286 slugging average and 542 OPS in April. He started to show signs of life in May, but a freak injury in Puerto Rico sidelined Helms on May 19th and the ensuing knee surgery kept him out of the lineup until June 29th.

Since returning, Helms has hit .229 with an OPS below 600. He has only two home runs all season, the last coming on May 11th at home against Montreal. He has two extra-base hits since coming off the DL, both doubles, and is 3.2 runs below replacement level at third-base, ahead of only Tony Batista, the recently-released Chris Stynes, and former-teammate Mark DeRosa.

How do you explain the fall-off? For starters, Helms has not duplicated his home/road split from a year ago. In fact, he is batting worse at home than he is on the road this season in approximately the same number of at-bats.

          AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS   HR
---------------------------------------------
Home      96   .208   .280   .313    593    2
Road     101   .287   .354   .317    671    0
---------------------------------------------

While both of his home runs have come at Miller Park, Helms has not hit as well at home as he has on the road.

On the other hand, Helms has continued to hit well against left-handed pitching, but once again his split has returned back to a more reasonable level.

          AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS   HR
---------------------------------------------
Right    159   .233   .295   .302    597    2
Left      38   .316   .409   .368    777    0
---------------------------------------------

While Helms has hit better against left-handers, he hasn't come close to the 1006 OPS he produced against southpaws in 2003.

Some of the drop-off can undoubtedly be blamed on the knee injury. While Helms has been deemed 100% after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, it would be reasonable to assume that lingering problems might result from both the injury and the ensuing downtime.

At the same time, Helms has now received nearly 200 at-bats in 2004 and hasn't shown any signs of returning to the form he displayed in 2003. He is still striking-out at a high rate and walking at a low rate, but he is not hitting for power, in the form of doubles or homers, like he did a year ago.

Signs were abundant that Helms' 2003 season could be his career year, and that a downturn in production was to be expected. Still, it would have been hard to predict that the fall-off would be so dramatic. The fear could have reasonably been that Helms' doubles-that-turned-into-home-runs would turn back into doubles, but instead they have turned into outs. Concerns about his splits, both home/road and righty/lefty, however, were glaring, neon, hey-everybody-look-here warning signs, beckoning the Brewers to tread with caution.

They didn't, and Helms is now a burden on the team's already fragile payroll. He will earn $2.7 million in 2005 and is nearly impossible to move until his production picks back up. At 28-years old, Helms might never have a season as solid as his 2003 campaign. If that is indeed the case, the Brewers will have to hope that he can at least be a credible imitation - even a slightly below average one - in 2005.

-----

Notes and References

  1. "Helms not able to keep up with Jones," Richmond Times Dispatch, Byline Tim Pearrell, May 11, 1997.
  2. "Though slowed, Wohlers improving," Chattanooga Times Free Press, Byline Bill Zack, March 20, 1999.
  3. "Helms' rehab convenient; R-Braves slugger anxious to shoulder load again," Richmond Times Dispatch, Byline Tim Pearrell, March 31, 2000.
  4. Ibid.
  5. "A move of Chipper opens up possibilities," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Byline Carroll Rogers, November 8, 2000.
  6. "Helms to Braves: Try me," Chattanooga Times Free Press, Byline Bill Zack, December 11, 2001.
  7. "Helms tickled to death, loves to hit at Miller Park," Capital Times (Madison, WI), Byline Dennis Semrau, December 20, 2002.
  8. "Yost struck out with Texas fans," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Byline Drew Olson, March 1, 2003.
  9. "Chance of a lifetime awaits Helms; Former Braves' reserve has a shot at starting," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Byline Drew Olson, February 20, 2003.
  10. "Brewers sign Helms to two-year deal," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Byline Tom Haudricourt, December 20, 2003.
  11. See, for example: "Only If He Hits Righties Does He Hit Lefties" by Jon Weisman, available online at Dodger Thoughts.

Special thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, The Baseball Cube, and ESPN.com for providing the statistical data used in this article.

 




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