Friday, November 29, 2013

Helton is Hall-Worthy

Helton was one of baseball's best hitters and a deserving Hall of Famer
After 17 years, 2,247 games and 9,453 plate appearances--all with the Colorado Rockies--Todd Helton is calling it a career.

Though his retirement was not met with the same fanfare as Mariano Rivera or Chipper Jones, like them Helton was able to leave the game on his own terms. Felled by a forearm strain early in the year, he was able to return and remained healthy the rest of the way, getting into 124 games and bouncing back from a dismal and injury-shortened 2012. He notched his 2,500th hit on September 1st with a double off Curtis Partch. Helton hit a lot of doubles in his career: 592 of them--the most of any active player and 16th most all-time.

Partch, a rookie, was just ten years old when Helton made his big league debut on August 2nd, 1997 at the age of 23. Helton homered that day and the next, the first of many power barrages that would result in 369 trips around the bases throughout his career. The following year he inherited Andres Galarraga's first base gig and finished second in a closely contested Rookie of the Year race to Kerry Wood. In 1999 Helton was even better, topping 30 homers and 100 RBI for the first time while batting a robust .320/.395/.587. He was just getting warmed up.

Before long Helton had emerged as one of the most dominant hitters in baseball. It's easy to forget now, but his prime was Ted Williams-esque. Over the five year stretch from 2000 through 2004, Helton batted .349/.450/.643, posting an OPS over 1.000 each year while averaging 50 doubles, 37 homers, 123 RBI and seven wins per season (He even won three Gold Gloves during that span, though defensive metrics disagree). Only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were more valuable per fWAR during that time. Helton's 2000 and 2001 seasons were two of the best any hitter has ever had, and there's no doubt in my mind that he (or Bonds) should have been named Most Valuable Player in 2000, when he won the NL Hank Aaron award. That was the year he threatened .400 for much of the season, ultimately settling for the sabermetric triple crown with his .372/.463/.698 line in addition to his 405 total bases and 8.9 bWAR. How Jeff Kent walked away with the hardware that year, when he wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, remains a mystery.

The Rockies were quick to reward their star first baseman the following spring with a nine-year contract extension worth $141.5 million that kept him in Colorado through 2011. What they couldn't predict was that Helton, so remarkably consistent in the first half of his career, would decline so quickly in his early 30s and never again be the dominant offensive force he was during the early aughts. Helton failed to top 20 homers or slug north of .500 in a season after 2005 as age and injuries sapped his power. In 2007 he was instrumental in helping the Rockies reach their first and only World Series appearance in franchise history, only to disappear (three hits--all singles--in 16 at-bats) in the Fall Classic as Colorado was swept by the Boston Red Sox.

His career continued to go south from there. Unlike Teddy Ballgame, Helton wasn't able to remain an elite hitter throughout his 30s. He played past his 40th birthday but wasn't able to get much out of his last six seasons, missing an average of 50 games per year while hitting just .279/.373/.430, averaging only 11 home runs and 53 RBI per year. That lack of a strong finishing kick prevented him from reaching several notable milestones such as 600 doubles, 400 home runs and 1,500 RBI. In this regard Helton was a lot like Don Mattingly: both experienced incredible peaks, only to see their production curtailed by injuries throughout their 30s (Jeff Bagwell is a good comparison as well).

As such, I think most would agree that while his counting numbers are very good, they mirror those of other borderline candidates like Dwight Evans, Dave Parker and Dick Allen. They don't scream Hall of Fame. His rate stats (.316/.419/.539, 20th best OPS of all-time) do, but many will be quick to point out that they were enhanced by Colorado's thin air. Indeed, Helton batted .345/.441/.607 at home but was just a .287/.386/.469 hitter (nearly 200 OPS points worse) everywhere else. This doesn't bother me, though. Plenty of guys are in the Hall of Fame because they played the bulk of their careers in hitter's parks. It's hardly fair to penalize Helton but not Jim Rice, Mel Ott, Duke Snider, or the countless others who took advantage of their home parks' friendly conditions.

While it's true that Helton was nothing special outside of Coors Field, I think he has a much better case than most people realize. JAWS rates him as the 13th best first baseman of all-time, with his score almost matching that of the average Cooperstown inductee at the position. He rates just below Willie McCovey but higher than Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Mark McGwire, and Orlando Cepeda, to name a few. He can't stack up with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Frank Thomas, of course, but he still rates comfortably within the standards of the position. His peak was brilliant, and he had enough success in other years to round out his resume.

Based on the middling vote totals of former teammate Larry Walker, I get the sense that there probably won't be a lot of support for Helton's enshrinement either. Like Walker, they'll write him off as a byproduct of Coors Field. But Helton belongs in Cooperstown, and you don't have to squint that hard to see it.

Still don't believe me? Here are some more interesting factoids about the Toddfather that show just how special he was as a hitter:

-He is the only player to hit at least .315 with 25 homers and 95 RBI in each of his first full seven seasons (Albert Pujols missed joining him by one percentage point on his sophomore season batting average)
-He is the only player in National League history to have at least 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 extra base hits and 100 walks in one season (2000)
-He is the only player in baseball history with more than 100 extra base hits in back-to-back seasons (2000-'01)
-He is the only player in baseball history to hit more than 35 doubles in 10 consecutive seasons (1998-2007)
-He is one of only four men (Chuck Klein, Gehrig, and Foxx are the others) to accumulate over 400 total bases in consecutive seasons (2000-'01)
-Gehrig and Bill Terry are the only other first basemen to hit .315 or higher in eight straight years (1998-2005)

I rest my case.


  1. I enjoyed your article, but I don't think bagwell's career trajectory is comparable
    to helton's or mattingly. rather than a slow glide to averageness, bagwell was great right through 2003, played decently with one shoulder in 2004 and his career
    was over. i'd compare bagwell's career to Kirby puckett's instead: great, hit a brick wall, over. and i'd vote bagwell into hof before the other 3.

  2. You're right I think what I meant to say that Bagwell was similar to Helton in terms of overall career value. Their rate stats are very similar as well (Helton .316/.414/.539 Bagwell .297/.408/.540)

  3. I agree that Todd has a strong case. If there is room in the hall for 379-homers-in-17-years Baby Bull, then there's room for Todd. If there's room for field-advantages hitters Mel Ott and even Ted Williams, then there's room for Todd. In response to Anonymous, if anybody could have topped George Brett's legendary 3,000 hits, 300 homers, 1,500 ribbies(fun term, Tyler), 600 two-baggers, 100 triples and 200 thefts, it would've been Kirby, therefore he's probably better than Bags.

  4. Absolutely. Puckett was a tremendous player and still a very good player when his career was tragically cut short. Would have loved to seen what kind of numbers he would have ended up with. Then again, he was already 36 so it's very possible that his best days were already behind him.