Last offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays made a trade that will define their franchise for the foreseeable future. They traded James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson in exchange for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard, and even a year later, it is already being considered one of Andrew Friedman’s best trades. Shields had a strong season for the Royals, but Myers emerged as the American League Rookie of the Year, Odorizzi is set to start 2014 in the Rays’ rotation, and even Montgomery showed signs in his first season in the organization. But with the benefit of hindsight, would the Rays make the trade again? The one reason to pause: the Rays were thinking about trading not Shields but Jeremy Hellickson. Shields was significantly more expensive, but Hellickson was a Scott Boras client just one season away from being arbitration-eligible. The Rays entertained the thought of trading him, and several teams were reported to be interested. The Rays chose to trade Shields, and the rest is history. If the Rays had the chance, however, would they have conducted the 2012 offseason the way they did?
Jeremy Hellickson was bound to regress. For those of us who are sabermetrically inclined, that was a refrain we heard quite often. Hellickson may have managed a 3.02 ERA in 2011 and 2012, but with a strikeout to walk ratio under 2.00 and a homer rate over 1 per 9 innings, he simply did not have the ability to continue pitching at that high a level. After what happened in 2013, that sentiment looks almost prophetic. Hellickson collapsed to the tune of a 5.17 ERA, even requiring some time in the minors to clear his head. Hellickson had performed well, but it looked inevitable that his luck would run out and he would turn into an ordinary major league pitcher. If that is really what was bound to happen, why didn’t the Rays trade Hellickson at the peak of his value?
If you believed every word of the last paragraph, therein the issue lies. Why didn’t the Rays trade Hellickson? The debate over whether to trade him surrounded his ability as a pitcher and his value on the market in comparison to Shields. The issue with saying that Hellickson’s regression was a so-called “regression to the mean,” is that correlation does not imply causation. Post hoc ergo prompter hoc isn’t true–just because we said Hellickson was going to regress and then he did does not mean that he regressed for the exact reasons we thought he would. And this is not simply a philosophical argument. Hellickson’s peripheral statistics actually improved significantly in 2013 as he managed a 7.0 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9. Indeed, Hellickson did have a rough year, but the reason for it was not a turnaround of his luck but an issue with his fastball command. For whatever reason, his command of his fastball was not as crisp as other seasons, and the results were disastrous. That certainly is a concern in its own right and there is no guarantee he returns to his previous levels. But there is also a different type of luck factor to contend with here.
We talk about batting average on balls in play and strand rate as being variables controlled by luck, but another thing to contend with is the proportion of the time that a pitcher heads to the mound with his “best stuff.” We see games when pitchers are simply off, and often those games do not end well. Hellickson did have several excellent games, but for whatever reason, he had a disproportionate amount where his repertoire was not as sharp as usual. If Hellickson can get back to his usual percentage of games where his fastball command is sharp to go along with his improved peripheral statistics from 2013, he could conceivably be just as good as he was before. Hellickson is coming off a rough season, and now his elbow injury only clouds his future even more. But there is no reason he can’t be an excellent pitcher for the Rays the next three seasons. Hellickson had some warning signs, but his performance falling off a cliff was not an inevitability. The Rays thought that they had a dependable pitcher in Jeremy Hellickson. They were wrong in 2013, but future seasons could be a different story.
That does not mean that the Rays entered the 2012 offseason all but certain that James Shields and not Jeremy Hellickson would be the pitcher they would trade. If teams had offered prospects the caliber of Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for Hellickson, the Rays would faced an interesting debate. But it simply didn’t happen. We don’t know what teams offered for Hellickson, but evidently the talks with the Royals (and even the Arizona Diamondbacks for a time) centered around Shields. Especially when taking into account that Hellickson was cheaper and had two years remaining under team control, the Rays had no reason to deal Hellickson unless they were getting more appealing offers than they were for Shields. The Rays were not going to pass up Myers and Odorizzi simply because they liked James Shields a little bit more. Shields may be the better pitcher, but the Rays did not see a pitcher in Hellickson on the verge of collapse. The Rays wish that 2013 would have gone better for Hellickson, and this elbow injury only puts the Rays in a more difficult position. But no matter what happens from here, if the Rays could go back to last offseason, they would have traded James Shields and not Jeremy Hellickson every single time.