Andrew Carpenean-US PRESSWIRE
Despite a disappointing second act, was his peak value long and high enough to lift him over the threshold?
Todd Helton will turn 40 in August, and his contract with the Rockies will expire in November. Though he hasn't made any announcements regarding a possible retirement at season's end, it would shock no one if this was the veteran first baseman's final season. Whenever he does hang up his spikes, he'll do so as the Rockies' all-time leader in games played, plate appearances, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, walks (intentional and otherwise), and Wins Above Replacement. He is, by those measures, the greatest Rockie of all time, which raises the question of if that's enough to make Helton a Hall of Famer.
Before I dig into the merits of Helton's case, I want to point out that I'm fairly certain that Helton will not be elected to the Hall of Fame during his 15 seasons on the writers' ballot. That's not a comment on the quality of Helton's career as much as what I believe to be general perception of that career in the hearts and minds of the writers and non-Rockies fans.
Prior to his drunk-driving arrest earlier this month, Helton received high marks for character and leadership, but his offensive peak is generally regarded as too short and a byproduct of his ballpark and era, a combination that put Helton in arguably the most hitting-friendly environment in major league history during his prime. Heading into what could be his final season, it has been seven years since Helton has hit 20 home runs, eight since he has hit more, and nine since he has driven in 100 runs, all despite the fact that he continues to play his home games at Coors Field. As a first-baseman in that ballpark who made his major league debut in the heart of the juiced era, he just doesn't measure up.
Then there's his JAWS score. My friend Jay Jaffe created the JAffe WAR Score to determine how a player compared to the average Hall of Famer at his position. By averaging a player's career and peak WAR totals (the latter defined as his best seven seasons) and comparing that to the average of the men at his position already in the Hall of Fame, JAWS allows us to determine if a player's induction would raise or lower the Hall's existing standard. The average Hall of Fame first baseman has a JAWS score of 51.5 WAR (using Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement). Helton's JAWS score is 51.7, almost exactly the Hall standard (and actually a tick above). Helton's score is higher than that of Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg, Eddie Murray, George Sisler, Bill Terry, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez, and Orlando Cepeda, as well as higher than that of Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Fred McGriff, three men who seem likely to finish their run on the ballot short of induction but who annually receive enough Hall votes to remain on the list.
So by the subjective standard, Helton would seem to fall well short of being Hall-worthy, but by a widely praised objective standard he would seem to be fully deserving of induction. I think Helton will fall short of induction because the voting process is ultimately a subjective one, but that split demands we dig a bit further into his numbers.
Helton achieves his Hall-worthy JAWS score on the strength of an above-average peak which compensates for his below-average career value. That is indeed the crux of Helton's Hall argument, but Helton's peak was not as brief as memory and the raw counting stats quoted above would suggest. It actually lasted a solid decade from his first full season in 1998 all the way up to the Rockies pennant-winning season of 2007, when Helton hit .320/.434/.494 in 682 plate appearances. Across those ten seasons, Helton hit .332/.432/.585 while averaging 30 home runs, 108 RBIs, 109 runs scored, and 45 doubles a year. His home run totals did trail off during the final three of those seasons, but his ability to hit for average, get on base, and ring up 40-plus doubles a year did not.
The obvious caveat here is that Helton put up those numbers while playing half of his games at Coors Field. There's no way to argue that Helton's raw numbers were not inflated by his home ballpark, but while his home splits from that period look like video-game numbers, his road numbers were hardly lacking. Over that ten-year stretch, Helton hit .296/.395/.504 on the road with raw totals that, if doubled to compensate for the removal of his home stats, averaged out to 42 doubles, 23 home runs, and 89 RBIs per season. Given that hitters often hit better in their home parks even if they aren't hitter-friendly, that would seem to me to represent the worst Helton had to offer during those years. Indeed, if we look at his "neutralized batting" stats from Baseball-Reference (which attempts to adjust all hitting statistics to a neutral run-scoring environment), it has him averaging a .303/.400/.534 line, albeit with comparable counting stats. The gist of all that is that, even without help from his ballpark, Helton was a .300/.400/.500 hitter for a full decade during which he also won three Gold Gloves.
With regard to that last, Helton's defense grades out as average or worse per the fielding metrics used by Baseball-Reference and its WAR stat (Total Zone from 1997 to 2003, Defensive Runs Saved since). As per those Gold Gloves, Helton has had a reputation for being an elite defensive first baseman. If you share that view, you should also believe his JAWS score should be even higher than it is. WAR, incidentally, adjusts for ballparks, as does OPS+. From 1998 to 2007, Helton's OPS+ was 144. In 2012, only eight players in all of baseball had a higher single-season OPS+ than Helton had over those ten seasons.
It's also worth noting that Helton was walked intentionally 151 times from 2000 to 2007, an average of 19 a season. Only Barry Bonds (of course) and Vladimir Guerrero were intentionally passed more during those eight seasons. Some of that had to do with poor lineup protection, but it's still significant. Speaking of walks, Helton has walked more than he has struck out in his career, a rare accomplishment for a power hitter in his era, and that's true even if you remove his 184 intentional walks (a total which ranks 22nd all time).
It seems clear to me that, even after adjusting for his home ballpark, Helton had a Hall of Fame peak. The question is whether or not his career value, or lack thereof, undermines that performance. Certainly, there's little to recommend Helton from outside of those ten peak seasons. He played just 35 games as a late-season call-up in 1997, and in five seasons since 2007 he has been healthy enough to play in 125 games just once, hitting .285/.384/.431 over that span, the first two numbers in that sequence being solid but the third falling way short of what one should expect from a first baseman in Coors Field, even one in his mid-to-late thirties.
I find it interesting to compare Helton's career totals to those of Larry Walker, another Rockies great who has already hit the ballot and was also well liked by fans, teammates, and the media. Here's the raw comparison:
Both were regarded as excellent fielders, but Walker won seven Gold Gloves to Helton's three and grades out more favorably according to Total Zone and DRS. Walker added speed in his prime, averaging 19 steals at a 76 percent success rate during his first ten full seasons in the majors; Helton has never stolen more than seven bags in a season, and was caught nearly as often when he did that. Walker also spent five full seasons as an Expo and the equivalent of one more as a Cardinal, proving his ability to hit produce without the help of Coors Field.
I tend to lean toward putting Walker in the Hall of Fame, in part because there wasn't anything he didn't do well on a baseball field. Thus far, however, he has come in right around 20 percent of the vote on each of three ballots, with 75 percent needed for induction. I expect Helton to meet a similar fate. After analyzing Helton's Hall of Fame candidacy in August 2011, our Rob Neyer conducted a poll in which just 27 percent of Baseball Nation readers believed Helton had "done enough for the Hall of Fame," however they might have interpreted that. A Baseball-Reference.com poll that May showed that more than 60 percent of readers thought Helton deserved induction, but fewer than 34 percent thought he'd actually get in. Those are unscientific, likely overlapping samples of non-voters, but they're still informative.
The Hall of Fame will not suffer from the lack of Todd Helton, nor would it suffer from his inclusion. I lean toward leaving Helton out, but I will readily admit that I'm likely unfairly influenced by his last five seasons during which he has cost the Rockies $65.3 million (plus another $13.1 deferred over the next decade) while spending 177 days on the disabled list and only rising meaningfully above replacement level twice in five seasons, simultaneously failing to provide adequate production at first base and preventing the Rockies from obtaining such elsewhere. Perhaps with another five years of distance, I'll be able to look past those seasons and appreciate just how good Helton was in his prime. Then again, one could argue that, because of the obscuring effects of Coors Field, we'll never really know for sure how good Helton was. Ultimately, I think that last, not his steep fall from greatness and underwhelming career record, is what will keep Helton, and Walker, for that matter, out of Cooperstown.