2011 was, by all accounts, a significant rebound for Todd Helton. After coming off by far his worst year as a professional baseball player in 2010, there was no telling if this was truly the beginning of the end for the longtime franchise figure. The Rockies' most stable, longest tenured and generally consistent player was reduced to a big question mark. Would his skills be permanently affected by his declining back health? How much would he be able to contribute?
The good news is that the answer to that second question is "a pretty reasonable amount, considering the circumstances". While the book on how to play him had to be completely rewritten after a 2010 season cut in half by recurring back problems, his contributions to the 2011 Rockies team were generally quite comparatively significant to the rest of the (admittedly underperforming) team. This is especially important when we consider that Helton's health issues prevented the team from playing him as regularly as a normal starting first baseman, and not wanting to risk a 2010 style disabled list stint, the team was generally conservative with Todd's playing time all year despite standing out on the struggling team, one of the few management decisions I am actually willing to applaud Jim Tracy for. It would have been really tempting to throw Helton out there in excess to make up for the weakened team, and who knows what kind of damage could have come from hastiness like that?
There's no doubt that Helton is not the player we once knew. His power numbers that once justified him a spot in the middle of the lineup have declined significantly since 2005, and the signing of Michael Cuddyer was likely designed to address this specifically as much as anything else. Helton will likely be sliding down to the 6th spot in the lineup in 2012, though I still believe it would be a worthwhile experiment to hit him second behind Dexter Fowler. 2011 saw Helton's worst seasonal walk rate since the changing of millenia, but he still demonstrates an extraordinary eye and pitch sequence understanding. He makes pitchers work, and could be an excellent bridge of productivity between a leadoff batter and the RBI guys, despite the lack of speed. Even with fewer walks, Helton's on base percentage remained competitively high at .385, and most importantly, an ugly 2010 K rate disappeared to closer to career norms, likely the result of regular rest on the back. According to the capricious but nonetheless important defensive metrics, Helton's fielding also benefited from regular rest.
Going forward, Helton is no longer a top first baseman in most respects, but 2011 proved he doesn't have to let his health interfere with the skills that remain strong through his final two years on contract. He can still be a productive bat closer to the top or bottom of the order and his defense remains marvelous. Oh, and in case you forgot, he hits doubles. LOTS of doubles. He's still got pretty solid gap strength. We're just going to have to take all this with the understanding that he can't be out there every day at first base anymore; Jason Giambi, Michael Cuddyer and even Ramon Hernandez can all cover some of that inning load. The big question going forward is how much of these skills will remain consistent, and will the lightened play time allow his back to stay healthy.
Grade: B- The year was a big step upward for Helton. His performance stood out positively on a struggling team. Relative to the league, it was above average, but not overwhelmingly so.