Lost in the bemoaning of the Rockies' lack of homerun power thus far this season is the otherwise strong production from the new first baseman that the team paid $16 million to replace Todd Helton with. This new guy looks like Helton, only with a weird goatee, but you can tell the difference at the plate:
Todd Helton Previous Career Strikeout Rate: 13.4%
New Guy Strikeout Rate: 4.1%
Helton BB/K: 1.28
New Guy BB/K: 5.67
Helton ISO: .258
New Guy ISO: .122
Todd Helton GB/FB: 0.85
New Guy GB/FB: 1.32
We've had an extremely small sample so far this season, but the early returns seem to have Helton reinventing himself as a high contact singles/doubles hitter. Only three times this season has Helton walked back to the dugout from the batter's box after being rung up with a K, and yet, he only has one homerun. He's become a Tony Gwynn with a supersize carton of walks. Let me next say that if this isn't just an early fluke, that this shift is a good thing for both his career and for the Rockies.
The first figure I want you to look at is the ISO, or isolated slugging percentage (SLG minus the AVG) and note that it's less than half his career value. It's universally accepted that Helton's power has been fading the past few seasons, as you can see from this chart at FanGraphs. Without the power, Helton in his old form was becoming a liability at the position, as maintaining the same ball in play rates would also gradually erode at his average and OBP, dipping his overall production below an acceptable level for a first baseman. The trend had him hitting that floor this season. Instead, he now ranks second among NL first basemen in OPS, and could very well wind up in first if he continues with this type of production this year.
I'm not sure what exactly he's doing differently at the plate other than getting to more pitches low in the strikezone, the spike in his groundball rate being a pretty good indicator of that. The results, however, are obvious, as by getting on so frequently, he's forcing pitchers to go after Matt Holliday in dangerous run producing situations. As yesterday's result showed, once our leadoff and number three hitters turn the corner, the stakes rise even further and the runs will flow like imitation syrup at an Elks Lodge Pancake Breakfast.
Now, why this will be good for Todd's career boils down to the two stats that will get him into the Hall of Fame. Helton's not going to go in on his homerun totals, and right now his chances are very dependent on him playing until he's in his forties but if (a big if, that) he's able to do this, he should have at least a decent shot of accumulating enough hits and doubles to impress the voters. I think the career doubles will be what pushes him over the edge, and the magic number there would be 700. So far, only four MLB players have reached that plateau: Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Stan Musial and Ty Cobb. With a longer than expected career, Helton would likely be the sixth, assuming Alex Rodriguez doesn't decide to leave the game in order to pursue his long buried passion for floral design. At 419, he would need to average just over 35 a season in order to make it by the time he's forty. So far in his career, he's averaged over 46 for each full season. This one seems doable so long as his back and legs hold out.
Getting to 3000 hits might be a little trickier. Assuming his batting average declines to .310 for the remainder of his career, Helton would need just over 4100 more AB's to reach the milestone. If he just played to forty and stopped, that would mean 514 AB's/season. Given his health, I don't know if this is going to happen outside the American League as a DH, but then again, I don't know if that "playing until he's forty" scenario happens either so the point might be moot regardless. Still, the type of player Todd's become this season is precisely the kind we'd look for if Helton were to continue playing as a productive MLB contributor. Welcome to the Rockies new Todd, keep it up.